education

'Inept, careless, tribal': Calls grow for Gavin Williamson to go


“The most incompetent, ineffectual and inept education secretary in living memory.”

Such was the Yorkshire Post’s verdict this week on one of the county’s own sons, Scarborough-born Gavin Williamson, in a blunt editorial calling for him to resign or be sacked.

A Times leader was similarly damning. “Mr Williamson, by far the worst performer in an underpowered cabinet, already looks to have sacrificed his own future in government. Britain cannot afford for him to be so careless with the future of its children.”

Early on Wednesday morning, the education secretary cut a forlorn figure as he made his way into the Department for Education (DfE), to shouts from a Sky TV crew asking if he was going to resign.

His appearance before MPs in the Commons later the same day to explain the latest of a catalogue of delayed decisions, disastrous climbdowns and humiliating U-turns, will have done little to bolster his shattered reputation.

And it could all have been so different. When Williamson took up the post in 2019, his arrival at the DfE coincided with a much-needed boost to schools spending, a new levelling-up agenda and a fresh commitment to further education and vocational and technical qualifications.

Then the Covid pandemic hit, and though there was initially some sympathy for a secretary of state who found himself facing unprecedented challenges, that swiftly dissipated.

The U-turns have come thick and fast, from exams and exam results, to free school meals, BTecs and failed school openings, to the point where the education secretary is routinely likened to the pathetic TV comic character Frank Spencer, of the 70s sitcom Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em.

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Even the most moderate of headteachers and sector leaders have become increasingly exasperated with his leadership, among them Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

“We would all acknowledge he has been dealt a difficult hand,” he said, “but equally so have the people I’ve been representing.” He awarded him a C+ for effort and a U for achievement.

“The most important ingredient in leadership is to be able to take people with you.” Too often, said Barton, the unions have been seen as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

“The frustrating thing with Gavin Williamson is too often there’s a tribal political outlook and this is probably not the best time to be tribal.”

Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, and an outspoken critic of Williamson, said: “He has never got on top of the brief. I always have a lot of sympathy for a secretary of state for education because it’s a huge area. It’s highly complex with a lot of technical issues.

“I’ve spent 40 years in education so I should know about it. But what you can expect a secretary of state to do is to do the homework, to do a lot of learning, to master the brief. He just never has.

“In a crisis like the pandemic, you are not going to get everything right. But it’s really important to get the key decisions as right as possible.”

She also complained that Williamson had been too concerned with ideology, rather than the impact on the ground in schools, among teachers and parents.

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The decision to take legal action to force schools in Covid hotspots to remain open, and to insist that 3 million children should return to primary school this week, literally hours before the prime minister announced a national lockdown including schools, were among his worst errors, Bousted said.

Williamson’s cast-iron guarantee just last month that exams would take place this summer has resulted in yet more egg on his face. The only possible explanation for his continuing leadership at the DfE, according to one critic, is that he is a useful “fall guy” to take the flak for the prime minister.


GCSE and A-level exams in England to be replaced by teacher assessment – video

“Williamson’s skill, if it is a skill, is making people lose the will to live,” said one former colleague who asked to remain anonymous. “He drains energy from everyone and everything around him. He’s a vacuum, a black hole, a void.”

Former Labour education secretary Estelle Morris knows a thing or two about the challenges of the job, and when to resign. Almost two decades ago, after just a year in the post, she handed in her resignation saying she didn’t feel she had done a good enough job, a rare instance of political mea culpa.

Gavin Williamson may have lost the trust of heads, teachers and parents, but she says resignation is not always the answer, despite a minister’s shortcomings.

Instead, she suggested others with expertise should be drafted in to support and help rebuild trust and confidence in the department.

“To be a really successful secretary of state for education you’ve got to be both political and educational. But Gavin Williamson is almost all about politics. I’m not saying he doesn’t care what happens to kids.

“But the thread running through is that every time he has been asked to make a decision, he has had his eye on the political, rather than the educational impact.

“I never call for resignations. We are in such a dire position that we need a better debate. Something needs to change, but I know what it takes for a department to adjust to new leadership and resignation is not always the right answer.”



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