‘We've been ignored’ - Heads call on education secretary to restore trust

Diss Junior School

Norfolk headteachers have urged the new education secretary to urgently restore trust with schools. - Credit: St Benet's MAT

Norfolk headteachers have urged the new education secretary to restore trust with schools struggling to return to normality amid ongoing Covid pressures.

Nadhim Zahawi has replaced gaffe-prone Gavin Williamson, whose handling of the impact of the pandemic on schools was criticised for chaotic last-minute decision making, lack of consultation and exams U-turns. 

Veteran schools minister, Nick Gibb, first appointed to the education department by David Cameron, has also been removed.

Nadhim Zahawi

New education secretary Nadhim Zahawi. - Credit: Richard Townshend Photography

Promoted after overseeing the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, Mr Zahawi is inheriting a series of challenges at the Department for Education (DfE), including the government's education recovery package for pupils amid the pandemic.

Headteachers said top of the new minister’s “massive in-tray” should be re-establishing links between school leaders and the government following Mr Williamson’s confrontational top-down approach. 

Sarah Shirras, co-chair of Educate Norfolk and headteacher of St William’s Primary School in Thorpe

Sarah Shirras, co-chair of Educate Norfolk and headteacher of St William’s Primary School in Thorpe St Andrew. Picture: Simon Parkin - Credit: Simon Parkin


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Sarah Shirras, headteacher at St William's Primary School in Thorpe St Andrew, said: “Schools have felt very 'done to' during the pandemic, with little conversation with us about policy and priorities. 

“Those who run schools and work in them have felt ignored and often criticised. The last 18 months have put enormous pressure on many children and their families and we need to work together to support our school communities so that every child has the best opportunity for a happy and successful future.”

Pupils in classroom

Pupils at Queen's Hill Primary and Nursery School in Costessey. - Credit: PA

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Penny Sheppard, headteacher at Queen's Hill Primary and Nursery School in Costessey, added: “Following months of reactive policy we are all now hoping for some consistency, stability and most importantly a forward thinking approach. 

“What I would like most to be addressed is the whole assessment journey for our students - to have a professional debate about what needs to be tested, when and why.”

Penny Sheppard, headteacher at Queen's Hill Primary and Nursery School in Costessey

Penny Sheppard, headteacher at Queen's Hill Primary and Nursery School in Costessey - Credit: Archant

Schools continue to face challenges and will be looking for support, said Chris Read, interim headteacher of The Bishop’s CfE Academy in Thetford.

“With the removal of the requirement for children to isolate and a lack of confidence in the test and trace system, it is proving difficult to manage confirmed cases of Covid. We need more support and guidance to manage what could prove to be a difficult winter," he said.

Richard Cranmer has stepped down as headteacher of Archbishop Sancroft High School in Harleston. Pic

Richard Cranmer, chief executive of St Benet’s Multi Academy Trust - Credit: Nick Butcher

Richard Cranmer, chief executive of St Benet’s Multi Academy Trust, said funding was needed to support education recovery, particularly for children with special educational needs, and closing the attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils. 

“It is simply unacceptable that the children who have lived through this pandemic should have their hopes and aspirations thwarted,” he said. 

Archbishop Sancroft High School, Harleston

Archbishop Sancroft High School pupils. Calls have been made for clarity on exams in 2022. - Credit: St Benet's MAT

Isabel Stubbs, headteacher at Cecil Gowing Infant School in Sprowston, said she hoped more focus would be on the wellbeing of children and staff.

Beyond Covid, Mr Zahawi, who previously served as children and families minister in the DfE in 2018 and 2019, faces next month’s comprehensive spending review with other pressing issues including crumbling school buildings, teachers’ pay and higher education funding.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson.

Former education secretary Gavin Williamson who was criticised for chaotic decision making. - Credit: PA

Mark Moore, headteacher at Ludham Primary, said: “I think everyone would agree that he has a big job on his hands. For too long, successive education secretaries have tried to make an impact by tinkering with structures and focusing on pet projects.

"We need a proper, long-term funding plan which recognises the huge pressures faced by schools. 

“We need a period of stability where he listens to the profession."

"We also need a period of stability where he listens to the profession. Governments like to constantly push through new initiatives, which may have little positive impact on children’s learning or wellbeing.

“I would like him to attempt to bring schools with him with any changes based on honest, researched-based evidence.”

Ms Shirras added: “So much of the talk about schools is about testing, exams and inspection. I would love all the conversation to be about how children and young people can thrive, how schools can support them to achieve academically but also develop their confidence and resilience.”

Jim Adams, joint chair of Educate Norfolk and chief executive of Clarion Academy Trust.

Jim Adams, joint chair of Educate Norfolk and chief executive of Clarion Academy Trust. - Credit: Archant

Jim Adams, chief executive of the Clarion Academy Trust and Corvus Education Trust, said funding, workload and the recruitment and retention of staff were key issues, but the most immediate was exam arrangements for 2022. 

“What will they look like? What mitigations will be in place? Most importantly, what is their plan B if infection rates start to climb rapidly?” he said.

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