Nadhim Zahawi, who rose to prominence as vaccines minister during the pandemic, will take over as education secretary after Gavin Williamson’s gaffe-prone tenure ends.
Boris Johnson promoted Zahawi after praising the efficient and fuss-free Covid vaccine program, a style that may serve him well in an education sector buffeted by Williamson’s more confrontational style.
He was appointed as a junior education minister by Theresa May, and he was promoted to industry minister 18 months later. Johnson appointed Zahawi as the vaccines deployment minister in late 2020, a high-pressure position given the government’s reliance on rapid vaccine distribution as its primary weapon against Covid-19.
Zahawi was credited with hastening the initial program, which gave Johnson a significant boost in the polls for a time.
The Conservative MP who chairs the House of Commons education committee, Robert Halfon, praised Zahawi as someone who “could find mangoes in the Antarctic” and reenergize the government’s education policies.
“It may be that that’s the kind of organisation that the Department for Education needs. Perhaps it needs a big shake-up and a brilliant organiser, which he’s shown as vaccines minister he is very capable of doing.
“There’s a massive in-tray and I think that Nadhim will get to grips with it,” said Halfon.
Zahawi said that he was “honoured” to be back at the DfE as education secretary.
“Children and young people have had a tough time during this pandemic and I’ll be listening to them and their families as we accelerate our work to build back better and fairer,” he said.
“From my own experience, I know what a beacon of opportunity this country can be and I want all children, young people and adults to have access to a brilliant education, the right qualifications and opportunities to secure good jobs. That’s both vital for them and also our economy and is more important now than ever before.”
The most pressing issue confronting the new education secretary is the comprehensive spending review scheduled for next month.
As Williamson’s star faded, he struggled to persuade the Treasury to fund him, but Zahawi may fare better, particularly on the thorny issues of crumbling school buildings, teacher pay, higher education funding, and tuition fee loans.
The National Education Union’s joint general secretary, Mary Bousted, stated, “The comprehensive spending review is coming up in a matter of weeks.” The new secretary of state must be a strong advocate for providing schools and colleges with the resources and funding they require to support education recovery for all children and young people. There can be no more important priority for our country’s future.”
One major issue is restoring children’s lost learning from the pandemic. Sir Kevan Collins, the government’s catch-up tsar, resigned in spectacular fashion earlier this year, blaming No. 10 for failing to fund his £15 billion proposals.
Collins stated that the issue must be the top priority of the next education secretary as soon as he takes office.
“Delivering a comprehensive recovery plan remains a top priority. It will not happen naturally. We must make this happen. We must assist schools. It has to be the top priority,” Collins stated.
There are also a number of difficult decisions to make, such as how to grade and award the results of next summer’s exams, which are just over six months away for this year’s cohorts of year 11 and year 13 students.
Williamson’s two botched exam seasons mean that the grade acceleration of 2020 and 2021 will have to be tamed at some point, potentially resulting in some negative headlines for the government.
Zahawi was born in Baghdad to Kurdish parents who fled Iraq for the UK when he was nine years old. He is one of the Commons’ wealthiest MPs, having co-founded pollsters YouGov and having interests in other areas such as petroleum before becoming a minister.
Zahawi’s BSc in chemical engineering from University College London distinguishes him from the Oxbridge and humanities graduates who typically fill the DfE’s top post. Unlike Williamson, who went to a state comprehensive, Zahawi went to King’s College School in Wimbledon, where tuition is more than £20,000 per year.
Zahawi is the sixth education secretary since 2014, succeeding Nicky Morgan, Justine Greening, Damian Hinds, and Williamson during Michael Gove’s tenure, implying that the position is not a direct path to higher political office.