Seeing scientists such as Sarah Gilbert included in a commemorative book for pupils to mark the Platinum Jubilee will help inspire girls to go into science, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has said.
Mr Zahawi visited Manor Park Primary School in Sutton, south London, on Friday to meet Year 5 pupils and read them excerpts from Queen Elizabeth: A Platinum Jubilee Celebration, which features the Covid vaccine developer and other high-profile figures.
He told the PA news agency it was “wonderful to see their interest, but also their eyes light up” as they read the book, which the children described as “modern”.
He added: “It’s so important for this generation to realise the strength, resolve, the resilience that Her Majesty has given in her service to the nation, and through some pretty tough times over that period.
“I mentioned Sarah Gilbert and then I asked the children how many of them would even think about being a scientist, and literally, it’s a small sample, but nevertheless the majority said they are thinking about science, and that’s a great thing, and I’m in many ways just over the moon.”
When he asked how many pupils want to be scientists, four out of six raised their hands.
“I really believe that we all need, as I did when I was growing up – you know my back story, I came here as an 11-year-old boy without a word of English and understood the value of education.
“I think at this young age, to be able to, through this book… to bring it home to you, to make it real for you through knowing someone who’s done it before, Sarah Gilbert, will then I hope give young girls the confidence to be able to say ‘I can do that’.
“And of course, being inspired by Her Majesty as well.”
One pupil asked Mr Zahawi what part he played in the vaccine. He said it was a “privilege, probably the most important job I will ever do, because we were losing lots of people in many, many families”.
On the Jubilee, he told them: “It’ll be huge fun. I’m so excited. I’m doubly excited because it falls on my birthday – I was born on the 2nd of June.”
He told pupils their English teacher is clearly “also brilliant because your reading is fantastic”, and one pupil, Anay, said the school is “the best school in the world”.
Four-and-a-half million books celebrating the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee will be delivered to 18,000 primary schools in England and Northern Ireland.
Mr Zahawi said the book is “such a wonderful thing”.
He added: “You will know that sadly, even today in 2022 there are some families, some children, where there are very few books at home, or no books at home, and this will be a wonderful thing to take home and share with the rest of the family as well.”
He also said it is important that the book celebrates a diverse range of people honoured by the Queen with an MBE, including footballer Marcus Rashford for his work campaigning for free school meals.
The minister said: “I’m biased here a little bit because I’m a Manchester United fan, but it really is great for children to see people who are from their communities, people that they identify with, people who look like them – being recognised for their achievements.
“We celebrate our diversity and we cherish our unity, and I think that’s a wonderful thing that absolutely exemplifies what Her Majesty has done in her reign and her years of service to the nation.”
The book is framed around Great Granny Joyce, who moved to the UK from Jamaica and worked as a nurse in the Second World War. She speaks to her great-granddaughter Isabella about the Queen’s reign.
Mr Zahawi said: “Great Granny Joyce – I was getting goose-bumps because it really is about what binds us together, this diverse history, the family that is the Commonwealth.
“We come together to celebrate this extraordinary monarch who has given so much to all of us across the Commonwealth, and that sort of strength and resolve and her sense of duty above all is something that I think young minds will understand and appreciate.”
Shareen Wilkinson, director of teaching and learning at the LEO Academy Trust, which sponsors Manor Park, and an educational author who reviewed the book, said she wanted the name Joyce to be relatable to pupils.
She said: “My son’s great-grandmother, she was 101 when she died and she absolutely loved the Queen, so a bit of a tribute there. But also, growing up I had an Auntie Joyce, lots of family and friends have members, grandmothers, called Joyce.”
Mr Zahawi also wished pupils sitting GCSEs and A-levels this summer good luck, and said his department had tried to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic.
“What we’ve tried to do is work with the regulator to make sure we had in place additional information or the mitigations, or the adaptations, to make it as smooth as possible… understanding that this year those children, those students who are sitting exams, would have had the greatest interruption in their study time because of the pandemic,” he said.
“I wish everybody luck, I’m sure that it will go well, but we’re not complacent, we are very much making sure that we talk to the whole system all the time, so that we have a really good summer, and pupils feel that they’ve been supported in their examination.”