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Three priorities for the new education secretary


20 Sep 2021

EIF's director of policy and practice Donna Molloy outlines three opportunities that new education secretary Nadhim Zahawi can take to boost support for children and families even amid some challenging circumstances.

This article was originally published by The MJ.

Nadhim Zahawi, the new secretary of state for education, returns to a department he’s familiar with, having served 18 months as children’s minister in 2018 and 2019. However, he returns to a department operating within a hugely changed and challenging environment. Children, young people and their families are wrestling with the personal, social and economic consequences of fluctuating levels of lockdown over the past 18 months. At the same time, the services that would typically support these families and young people are facing new and increasing demands for their help, and the impact of multiple, competing calls on precious public resources.

As challenging as the circumstances may be, there is a window of opportunity for Mr Zahawi and the government to make a series of positive changes to boost the availability, quality and impact of support that families and children receive.

1. Put children at the heart of Covid recovery

For good reason, the first focus of the Covid response was on protecting the health of older and more vulnerable adult populations. Now, it must be recognised that children and young people have paid a high price to protect the nation’s health. Investing in services and support to help younger generations to avoid the worst impacts of the pandemic and lockdown conditions – on their physical and mental health, or education and employment prospects – is essential if families and children are to bounce back strongly in the months ahead. 

2. Reshape the system of support around vulnerable families

There is increasing recognition of the intersecting, overlapping issues that can affect families, and the potential impact of these complex needs on children’s wellbeing and development. For the sake of both efficiency and effectiveness, it is crucial that public services working with families are able to provide coordinated, skilled support that addresses a family’s concerns and challenges in the round, not as a series of standalone issues. The independent review of children’s social care provides one opportunity to strengthen the services that support whole families, addressing the root causes that commonly result in children being referred into social care and providing benefits beyond simply reducing demand on the social care system itself. The government’s investment in family hubs is another opportunity to make a range of well-evidenced support more widely available to families via a single access point, reducing the number of different services people have to move between and how often they have to retell their stories.

3. Continue to coordinate family policy across government

Mr Zahawi’s predecessor, Gavin Williamson, had responsibility for family policy. In this role, the education secretary is able to provide a crucial point of coordination in a fragmented policy landscape. While it might look administrative in nature, this shift has the potential to create compounding benefits across public services, by aligning policies, programmes and investments to make it easier for those working locally to create a coherent helping system for families. And by promoting the importance of evidenced approaches in crucial spending and policy decisions affecting families – whichever department those decisions sit in – the secretary of state can make it more likely that truly effective support is provided to those who need it most.

About the author

Donna Molloy

Donna is director of policy & practice at EIF.