James Kirkup

No, Gavin Williamson wasn’t the worst education secretary ever

No, Gavin Williamson wasn't the worst education secretary ever
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Gavin Williamson was the worst education secretary in history, according to Sam Freedman, a former Tory education adviser. In the wake of Williamson’s departure from the Department for Education, many other commentators are being even less generous. No one has a good word to say about the man.

No one except me, that is. I write here in defence of Gavin Williamson.

To be utterly clear, my defence is a very narrow one. I am speaking up for Williamson over only a portion of what he did as Education Secretary, and not the largest part either. While a lot of things Gavin Williamson did were indeed dismal, not everything he did was bad or wrong.

The stuff that deserves praise and should not be forgotten concerns the bits of the education system that don’t get enough attention from the commentators now heaping scorn on Williamson: further education, apprenticeships, adult education. Those are things that few people at Westminster have either personal or family experience of. It is not a coincidence that they are also poorly served in terms of policy and funding.

Williamson did not, on the whole, change that. But he took some of the steps necessary for such change to take place: he talked about the people who don’t go to university as if they matter as much as those that do. He said that not going to higher education can be as valid and rewarding and creditable as getting a degree. He even said he’d be happy for his own kids to become apprentices rather than undergraduates.

Given Westminster’s – and Britain’s – cultural skew towards graduates, that was a big deal. It should be remembered alongside all the other, shall we say, less impressive things that Williamson did in office. I hope he’s helped to start a conversation about such things that will outlive his time in office. If so, he has done good service for the country, especially the portion of it that is often overlooked in politics.

In a similar vein, it should not be forgotten that on Williamson's watch, the government started to set out some plans that could, in time, deliver some real and important changes in way we learn and train. The words 'Lifelong Loan Entitlement' won’t be used anywhere in all the endless breathless reporting of the reshuffle, but they denote something that could just be a major and positive change.

The LLE, set out by Williamson in a White Paper earlier this year, would allow adult learners to borrow to fund short, modular courses at universities and further education colleges. This should mean that instead of cramming most of your learning and training in a few years after school, you’ll be able to combine education with work, and improve your skills and education at any stage in your career.

This could also drive change in the way universities provide education, level the playing field between HE and FE, and eventually help address the UK’s abiding productivity problems. Oh, and it would also open up better education, more skills and better jobs to people who currently fare poorly in life.

That’s if it works, of course. Promising an education revolution is easy, delivery less so. There’s a load of stuff still to be done, not least around Treasury funding. I strongly hope that the Treasury funds the thing properly, that Williamson’s successor continues to push the plan, and enjoys ongoing support from No. 10 in that.

It’s also fair to note that a lot of education-watchers believe Williamson wasn’t the primary author of the lifelong learning policy, instead giving credit to advisers in his department and 10 Downing Street. I think that’s fair too.

But I also think that ministerial office is a blade that cuts both ways. Ministers, quite rightly, bear the blame for everything that happens during their term. All the bad things that happened in education while Gavin Williamson was there belong to him and his record (even if he might feel that in many cases he was dropped in it by No. 10). 

But by the same token, if the Lifelong Loan Entitlement delivers even some of its transformative potential, credit for that should go to the education secretary who was in office when it was proposed.

My point here is a small one, but potential novel in these times, when everything must be either triumph or disaster, and everyone in politics and public life must either be all dreadful or entirely saintly, depending on which 'side' you’re on. I am on no one’s side, so I’m happy to say that no one, not even Gavin Williamson, is 100 per cent bad.