Melanie McDonagh

Gavin Williamson is the least convincing education secretary ever

Gavin Williamson is the least convincing education secretary ever
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It was Michael Gove who declared today that the Government was closing schools with the 'heaviest of hearts' and confirmed that A levels and GCSEs were off. Where, you wondered, was Gavin Williamson, the actual Education Secretary? Busy, no doubt, preparing for his own announcement on Wednesday, which, on the basis of his previous record, will reassure no one.

Personally, I think the decision to cancel exams is really bad. I can’t remember whether it was Einstein we credit with that quote about repeating the same thing and expecting a different outcome being the quintessence of stupidity, but it pretty well sums up the situation here. 

Last summer, some schools took the opportunity to inflate grades by comparison with normal years when teachers marked their own cards – via their pupils’ performance – in assigning GCSE and A level grades (though, rather annoyingly, my own son’s school took the opposite approach). I see no reason to assume teachers will be any less inclined to cut themselves a bit of slack this time.

Anyway, Mr W will be explaining tomorrow how it’s going to be different second time round. Given the vehemence (which, like an idiot, I was rather reassured by) with which he told us that schools wouldn’t close, and that exams would go ahead, there is a bit of a credibility gap here. 

It would be wrong to say that Gavin Williamson is the worst Education Secretary ever – that accolade goes to Justine Greening – but he must be the least convincing. Remind me, someone, quite why he was appointed to a brief for which he had no very obvious aptitude to begin with? His qualifications might have suggested the business brief as his forte, and he seemed quite keen on defence, but education, arguably the most important single department of government? He has children, so I suppose Boris assumed that that would cover it.

He mooted not so long ago the idea of mass Covid testing in schools with the staff carrying it out. It would have been actually feasible, given enough notice; certainly some schools had set up the process. And if it were combined, again feasibly, with giving teachers swift priority access, right after the elderly, to one dose of the Covid vaccines, it would have made it possible for schools to continue to function, to the benefit of pupils, parents and society. 

But like everything else, the impressive thing about Mr W’s performance was his ability to execute a swift handbrake turn on policy, perhaps the most valuable attribute for a government minister these days, in imitation of the boss.

Perhaps he might like to ponder the sound observations of the Ofsted chief inspector, Amanda Spielman (whom I know, but I’d say it anyway) that you can’t furlough children’s development and that the last school lockdown brought about a real loss of children’s basic skills. Yep. And as the IFS has pointed out, it also broadens the class divide, given that most state schools are rubbish at distance teaching, whereas nearly all private schools offer a full day’s curriculum.

Surely now it must be a priority for laptops to be issued to pupils who don’t have them. Even if they use them to play Minecraft, it means at least that schools won’t have the same bad excuse as last time for not conducting proper online classes: if every pupil could not have access, none should. It’ll be less expensive in the long run than not teaching them. It is, indeed, the very least Mr Williamson can do. But don’t blame him, poor thing; blame the man who appointed him. The buck stops there.