How do you show you care about children in a pandemic? If you’re education secretary Gavin Williamson, you vote against extending free school meals in the holidays, preside over an exams debacle that left thousands of students lost and alone last year, remove safeguards for those in care, and threaten to sue schools for closing in response to rising infection rates.
Defending the Department for Education’s £1.4 billion school catch-up plan in Parliament on Monday, Williamson maintained that it was sufficient for the months of lost learning, glossing over the failure to attain a tenth of the £15 billion in catch-up funds requested from the Treasury – a shortfall that led education recovery tsar Kevan Collins to resign.
This is only the latest breadcrumb in the trail of disaster Gavin Williamson leaves in his wake. From failing to predict that reopening schools would affect Covid spread to leaving vital exam results to a faceless algorithm, Williamson has an impressive ability to get things wrong.
‘Any minister who makes children cry is not in a good place,’ commented one Tory MP in response to the A-levels fiasco of 2020. As students stared at computer-determined grades, many of their dreams dissolving in a moment, Gavin Williamson insisted that there would be ‘no U-turn, no change’.
Algorithms themselves aren’t ‘mutant’ – they simply reveal and perpetuate the biases of the humans that create them, which, when applied to this government, meant that downgrades hit pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds the hardest, while pupils at private schools were elevated. A U-turn did later take place, but only after a series of targeted protests staged by the students whose futures had been usurped.
Then, in December, schools in Islington and Greenwich were threatened with legal action if they chose to close early in response to a new strain of Covid-19 rapidly spreading through London. Defending the direction issued to the London borough on 14 December, Williamson feigned ignorance about the new variant, holding that he had not been aware of the impact the new variant would ‘ultimately have’. On 20 December, a Greenwich hospital declared a major incident, having been forced to call in staff and divert emergency patients. On January 4, millions of children went back into primary schools before being told at 8pm that evening that the schools that were ‘no doubt’ safe a day earlier would be closed until mid-February.
In February, Williamson announced the creation of the role of ‘free speech champion’ at universities, as a result of his concern about no-platforming. The irony of this is that Williamson seems to have effectively no-platformed himself from news outlets he perceives as hostile, failing to speak to Channel 4 News once in his 22 months in his role.
It’s clear that Williamson was never up to this job. Or the one he had before. His career journey from fireplace manufacturing businessman to Chief Whip in 2016, Defence Secretary in 2017, and Education Secretary in 2019 is genuinely confounding.
As Defence Secretary, Williamson’s suggestions included firing paintballs at Spanish ships, mounting ‘really expensive’ guns on tractors (an idea for which he was accused of having ‘lost the plot’), and telling Russia to ‘go away and shut up’. He additionally argued that the Russians were ready to ‘kill thousands and thousands’ of Britons by disrupting the country’s electricity interconnectors, a comment that demonstrated his flair for the theatrical: he also kept a pet tarantula, Cronus, by his side when he was Chief Whip. He was sacked from his Defence brief after allegedly leaking information from a National Security Council meeting.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Education Secretary’s rapid rise to power has been subject to scrutiny from MPs, education professionals, and students alike. He is loathed by teachers: in a poll of 6,000 published this January, 92 percent wanted him to resign. (Despite claiming to trust teachers, Williamson instructed parents to report schools to Ofsted if they felt online learning provision was inadequate.) He has been called ‘limp and spineless’ by the president of the NEU, and even headteacher unions—typically less confrontational than those representing non-SLT staff—mobilised to take legal action against the DfE in January. Given that widespread antipathy, the rumours now surfacing about a possible sacking are hardly surprising. Many will feel they come far too late.
But we should also be wary of any successor. Williamson is not the first Tory education secretary to be detached from reality: his predecessor, Michael Gove, famously diverted funds from schools in need to academies and spent £370,000 (funded by philanthropists) sending Bibles to every school. Given the low standards of actual care for children set, it’s not hard to see how the offer of cheap broadband for pupils extended to Williamson was snubbed.
Covid-19 is currently spreading rapidly through schools, but Public Health England is allegedly suppressing data on the presence of the Delta variant. The allegation comes after reports from nominally independent PHE were delayed due to pressure from the Prime Minister’s office. With narrow corridors, smaller classrooms, and larger class sizes as a result of austerity and budget cuts, for the Education Secretary, ignorance is bliss.
All of this leads us to the eternal question: how does Gavin Williamson still have his job, even after breaking the law? Well, there’s also Raab, who still has his job. And Hancock, who still has his job. And Patel, whose career is staggeringly resilient. It’s this very incompetence that makes the likes of Rishi Sunak appear spectacularly competent by comparison, and comforts the Prime Minister. Williamson is a natural fit for the fealty-style nepotism of the Johnson culture. While we wait for him to resign, the future of a generation remains in his unsteady hands.