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The new Education Secretary has said he will not “stand back” and allow pupils to miss school as a result of Covid, as he encouraged children to get the vaccine.
Setting out his priorities for the first time in his new role, Nadhim Zahawi said that as a parent he has seen how “damaging” it can be for children to be out of education and the “great strain” it can put on family life.
Writing in The Telegraph, Mr Zahawi, who was appointed Education Secretary earlier this month after Gavin Williamson was sacked in a Cabinet re-shuffle, said that almost every state school is now open and operating normally.
He cited the latest official attendance figures, which showed that 122,500 pupils were off school last week compared to a peak of more than a million in July when entire “bubbles” were sent home when a child tested positive.
'We won’t stand back and let attendance fall'
“While the latest attendance figures show more than 91 per cent of children are in school, we must do everything we can to keep as many in face-to-face learning as possible,” he said.
“We can’t and won’t stand back and let attendance fall. The education of our children is simply too important.”
Mr Zahawi's comments will be seen as a signal that he is willing to stand up to the unions which have repeatedly called for schools to close during the pandemic.
His predecessor was accused of being too soft on teaching unions and failing to get children back to the classroom quickly enough following the first national lockdown, then presiding over the controversial "bubbles" policy which at its height saw over a million pupils forced to stay at home after a classmate tested positive.
Mr Zahawi said that the swift rollout of the Covid jab among adults, which he oversaw in his previous role as vaccines minister, had led to the safe reopening of society and the economy.
“As a result, life has returned to relative normality far sooner than many of us dared to imagine," he said.
“Now, in my new job as the Prime Minister’s Education Secretary, I’m determined to see the same sense of urgency and vigour we’ve witnessed throughout our vaccination programme as we offer the vaccine to children aged 12 and above."
Mr Zahawi said that no child is being “forced” to have the vaccine, adding: “It is a personal medical choice for children and parents or carers to discuss and we trust them to do so – and no one should be stigmatised for their decision.”
'Being vaccinated is personal medical choice'
But, he stressed: "Let’s be clear. Being vaccinated is a good thing, both for you and for those around you."
The Education Secretary accused anti-vaccine protesters outside schools of behaving in an “outrageous and completely unacceptable” manner.
“Under no circumstances is it ever acceptable to target teachers or the wider school community,” he said.
“As Education Secretary, I want teachers and students to know that I will always stand up for them and tackle any harassment head on, so teachers can do their vital jobs safely and children get the education they deserve - regardless of whatever choice children and their parents make over vaccination.”
The vaccine roll-out in schools began last week after the UK’s chief medical officers said offering a single dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab to around three million pupils would “reduce educational disruption”.
The move came despite the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation deciding not to recommend the mass vaccination of 12 to 15 year olds, as it concluded the jab would provide only a marginal benefit to that cohort, which is at a low risk from the virus.