The Daily Telegraph


New Education Secretary replaces one that came bottom of the class in pandemic management

- By Janet Daley

The most hapless education secretary in living memory has been replaced by a man who has distinguis­hed himself in what was his hugely important previous job. As vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi dealt with what was, literally, a matter of life and death and he accomplish­ed that task with an assurance and competence that significan­tly contribute­d to the confidence that the country felt in the Government’s handling of the Covid crisis.

Even when confusion and mixed messages from Downing Street put him in the most awkward positions imaginable, Mr Zahawi managed to hold it together and present a plausible face to the nation.

So here’s hoping he can bring that degree of calm effectiven­ess to a department which is a notorious political bear trap. He will have to deal over the coming months with all those critical dilemmas which his predecesso­r famously failed to resolve, and the consequenc­es of his decisions will affect the life prospects of a generation of young people.

That’s what you call a challenge. Somehow, he will have to find a way through the immediate questions of whether bubbles, routine testing, and isolation of pupil contacts should persist, while at the same time taking a longer view of the repercussi­ons of grade inflation and its consequenc­es for higher education. There could scarcely be a more difficult government­al brief.

But the resolution to all of these matters will hinge on one momentous political challenge: how his department deals with the militant education unions. In this titanic struggle, it will be critically important that he distinguis­hes, in every public pronouncem­ent and policy decision, the genuinely dedicated teacher from the motormouth activist and union organiser. To permit the former to be discredite­d by the latter would be quite unforgivab­le and it would fatally damage the trust of parents who are fully aware of the profound difference between the two.

Driving a wedge between conscienti­ous practition­ers and those who seek to make use of them in an ideologica­l trench war against the Tory Government will take more than rhetoric. One of the unions’ strongest cards is that they have made effective use of their collective resources to indemnify teachers against accusation­s of abuse. Many primary school teachers particular­ly, who tend to be apolitical and disincline­d to engage in militancy, feel compelled to

‘Important he distinguis­hes genuinely dedicated teacher from motormouth activist and union organiser’

join a union for this protection alone. A government-sponsored indemnity scheme has been under considerat­ion for some time which would remove such dependence on union membership. Expediting it should be a priority for the new education secretary.

This job will take guts, relentless energy and quite phenomenal commitment. The effect of the policies which the Government adopted to deal with Covid will prove, in the end, to have been more damaging to schoolchil­dren – ironically, those least affected by the virus itself – than any other group in society. It is going to need a superhuman effort to put it right, but anyone who succeeds will earn the gratitude of a generation.

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