Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has told his staff they must return to pre-pandemic working patterns “immediately” after data showed the Department for Education had the lowest office-attendance rates in government.
Zahawi told MPs on parliament’s Education Select Committee yesterday that he he had given the instruction. Internal figures appeared to show that on any given day in the first week of April, just 25% of DfE staff were working from their offices when a cross-government snapshot was undertaken.
Civil servants will be wearily familiar with regular calls from some ministers for hybrid working practices adopted during the pandemic to be abandoned, regardless of staff productivity or a shortage of space in central London buildings.
Quizzed about the DfE figures – which compared to an average of 44% across all departments surveyed – by education committee chair Robert Halfon, Zahawi was yesterday unable to explain why the department’s attendance was so low. However the secretary of state paid tribute to the work of his staff.
“Since I was appointed secretary of state back in September the team has delivered everything from skills legislation to the schools white paper to the SEND green paper,” he said.
“So I would just put on record my thanks for the incredible work my civil servants do under incredibly difficult circumstances, including coping with Omicron.”
Halfon asked whether staff were staying away from offices because Covid was rife in the department.
“No,” Zahawi replied. “The straight answer is that we’ve got to do better. My instruction from my prime minister, from cabinet yesterday is that we’ve got to go back to pre-Covid working and office use, and that’s what we will do. And you will see us improve.”
Zahawi said he believed it was important to look at productivity as well as being physically present in offices.
“I want to see my teams get out there and be visiting schools, early years, colleges, universities and of course local government,” he said.
Halfon responded that the attendance statistics, which were contained in a letter from efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg to secretaries of state, related to working from home.
Zahawi returned to his earlier observations.
“You will see those numbers improve,” he said. “We are going back to pre-Covid working, where I expect offices to return to normality pre the pandemic. That is my instruction to my teams. That is what you will see happen.
“The cabinet was very clear that it needs to happen immediately that we go back to pre-pandemic office use.”