Education Secretary addresses LGA annual conference
Nadhim Zahawi speaks to delegates about his vision for an excellent, inclusive education for every child
I am delighted to be joining you today and to be a part of the many exciting discussions I know have been taking place.
You will have heard from a number of my colleagues from all sides of the political spectrum.
Whichever party we represent, many of us go into politics in the hope of changing things for the better. That’s certainly what gets me racing to the office in the morning.
But I know that very often those who do this on a daily basis - and you could argue who do it most effectively - are not always in Westminster but are the local heroes, the community champions and I know I see many of you here today.
So before I go any further I would like to say a huge thank you… the very biggest thank you… to everyone who has helped out as our communities battled the Covid pandemic. I know many local authorities really stepped up a gear to help fill the vacuum in the early days of the pandemic.
Your efforts have made an enormous difference to people’s lives as well as helping to keep young people learning…
But you don’t just provide a vital safety net in a pandemic.
I have been so moved and humbled by how communities across the country are opening their arms to welcome those who have had to flee their homeland in Ukraine.
We are standing shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine and my department continues to work to ensure that all Ukrainian refugees are offered the same access to high-quality education and childcare that people who live here can expect.
Local authorities are playing a crucial role here and I am enormously grateful to you for everything you are doing to make sure Ukrainian arrivals are met with a warm welcome as they arrive in the UK.
There have been an estimated 11,400 applications across the country for school places for children from Ukraine and an estimated 9,900 offers have been made so far. Obviously this is a constantly shifting picture as the war in Ukraine continues.
My job as Education Secretary is to make sure that every child, every student, or every adult learner, wherever they are from – it might be Ukraine, or it might be Uckfield, but everyone needs to have exactly the same chance to get on in life.
Everything I do is driven by a clear duty to make excellence the expectation, not the exception, for everyone, right across our nation and I am putting this into practice with my focus on three things: skills, schools and families.
Our recent Schools White Paper sets out stretching ambitions for children across the country including recruiting and retaining excellent teachers; driving up attainment in literacy and numeracy and ensuring efforts are focused on those pupils and areas most in need of our help.
It joins the Skills Act which we published in April, which is going to transform the way young people and adult learners get the skills they need for the jobs they want, when they want.
Our expectation for excellence must extend to those who are most vulnerable, which is why we commissioned the recently completed Independent Care Review and published our SEND and Alternative Provision Green Paper and I’ll talk a bit more about these in a moment.
And I want you, our experts on the ground, to be allies on this mission…
Because standards in some areas of the country are still too low and I need your help to keep up the momentum for change. We need our best leaders (that means you) to drive change and level up opportunity.
I know local authorities already champion the interests and wellbeing of all children in their area. They are in a better place to do this than anyone else because they can draw together education, children’s services and other vital services to improve the outcomes for any local children who need this help.
Our systems have become more complex over time and there has been a gradual disconnect between the duties and powers of local authorities, while demand for their services has risen. I think we all recognise that we need a much clearer idea of what we expect from local authorities in education and care.
This gives us an opportunity to reset how we work together.
It is time to forge a new partnership between central and local government, as we undertake transformational reforms across schools, high needs, and the care system.
For my part, this means making sure everyone has the powers and resources they need to deliver on their responsibilities.
But I can promise you my friends, that this means that we will also improve the way we, as a department, work with you.
The first step in this commitment is our new Regions Group. We are rebuilding the Department so that you can work with a team that knows your area and your role holistically. This team is going to have a central role in helping develop policy to meet local needs.
Another area where we have been working with you is on attendance. It didn’t take a pandemic to make us aware that we have a problem with the worrying number of children not in school.
The number of pupils who are persistently absent is going up and I know you are just as concerned about this as I am.
I will not stand by while children squander their future life chances. So we are looking to you, to schools and to academy trusts to develop your services in line with the new national guidelines to support and drive up attendance.
There is something I am very excited about which I know is going to be a great help in that regard and that’s a new trial on automating attendance data.
I realise that I put an awful lot of faith in data but my friends, I have seen how vital it can be, whether that is in running a company or a national vaccination programme…
In January, we invited schools to take part in a data trial to monitor attendance and around 65% of those invited have done so. The scheme aims to give a far more accurate picture of attendance.
We are gathering the data directly from school registers and we have started sharing this with schools.
This new data-gathering approach will also provide a blueprint for further improvements across the whole system.
And talking of improvements, we currently have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a coherent system that supports all children and young people with the recent SEND Review and Independent Review into Children’s Social Care.
I know that there are tensions and I am determined to give local partners the powers and resources they need to deliver our levelling-up agenda.
We want to build on the excellent work that has already been done by local authorities but recognise the level of frustration with the current special educational needs and disabilities system.
This is why we conducted the SEND review and have published a green paper for consultation.
We have worked closely with the LGA in a cross-sector Steering Group as well as parents, teachers and, most importantly, children themselves.
They have all told us that the system is not working as it should and our Green Paper sets out how we plan to improve that.
We propose to set up a single, national system, which will set clear standards about what support is provided for children with SEND.
As I mentioned earlier I want a more inclusive education system with excellent local mainstream provision for every child for whom that is appropriate and excellent specialist and alternative provision for those that need it. This will improve the experience and outcomes for children and young people with SEND and those who need alternative provision.
Thank you for all your contributions to this so far. Please keep it up so that we can continue to deliver excellence for every child.
I know that many of you have also been making vital contributions to the changes we are planning to children’s social care.
We recently received the final report of the independent review of children’s social care, as well as the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel National Review into the tragic deaths of Arthur Labinjo Hughes and Star Hobson and the Competition and Markets Authority market study into the children’s social care market.
These reviews provide a roadmap for a much-needed reset of the system, so that all children grow up in loving safe and stable families and where that is not possible care provides the same foundation.
My department is working flat out to put these changes into practice and I expect to publish an ambitious strategy before the end of 2022.
Colleagues, friends, when it comes to education and care, we all share many aims… But chief among them is a determination that every child should have the start in life we would wish for own children.
And every day that a child is not getting what we should be delivering is a missed opportunity to improve their life chances.
I am a man on a mission, my friends, and I know you are with me on this mission.
Together, we will achieve amazing things.