Fiascos of Education Secretary Gavin Williamson make him ‘Captain Calamity’ - Jayne Dowle

NOT for the first time, I’m wondering what qualifies Gavin Williamson for the job of Education Secretary. Indeed, for any job requiring engaging of brain before opening of mouth.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson continues to come under fire. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

If it wasn’t so tragic – and potentially dangerous – it would be funny. I can see the film title now: Captain Calamity Goes Forth. The problem is we’re now living through the sequel (Captain Calamity Strikes Again) and it’s taking place in the middle of a global pandemic which has already claimed 60,000 lives in the UK.

Here after all is the man who was obliged to resign as Defence Secretary, not only for leaking National Security Council briefings, but for saying, in response to the Salisbury poisonings, that “Russia should shut up and go away”. Even Private Pike, the hapless Home Guard recruit in the TV comedy Dad’s Army, would have been embarrassed by that one.

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If the Prime Minister thought that Mr Williamson would cause less trouble at Education, he totally under-estimated him. He may have a degree in social sciences from the University of Bradford, but when it comes to understanding how society – and social situations– actually work, he is definitely on course for an unclassified grade.

Should pupils still have to sit GCSE and A-Level exams next year? Photo: David Jones/PA Wire

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Can this man be trusted to do anything right? What is the Prime Minister thinking, allowing him loose into radio and television studios, not to mention letting him open his mouth in the House of Commons where his Labour opposite number, Kate Green, is so capable?

After being forced to account for the unexplained leak of his plans to make GCSEs and A-levels easier for students next summer, Mr Williamson spent last week simply making matters worse.

Following the debacle of the summer when thousands of GCSE and A-level results ended up as hostages of fortune – and the, frankly, disastrous decision to allow universities to reopen in September without anticipating the Covid risk factor – you would have thought he might have learned a few lessons in sagacity. Or at least taken some fool-proof media training.

Not our Gav (he’s from Scarborough). It was bad enough that once again, on a matter which affects schools and colleges, not to mention young people, teachers and parents, he was so ill-prepared and shambolic.

However, to then completely blow it on a matter for which he has shown no previous understanding or insight was beyond belief, really.

Was trashing the rest of the world and making enemies in Europe just when we’re trying to finalise Brexit negotiations a deliberate attempt to distract from the row over the “quick fix” solution he proposes to all those missed hours of schooling, inefficient online teaching and pupils sitting in classrooms with the windows open in snowstorms to stave off coronavirus? Or just foot-in-mouth ineptitude?

Keen observers of Captain Calamity will definitely plump for the latter. LBC radio host Nick Ferrari, clearly sensing a chance for some fun, steered way off the topic of education. Did Brexit mean that the UK got the vaccine ahead of the EU and the US?

It’s worth repeating the Secretary of State for Education’s answer in full. Just so you can appreciate the bluster and bluff, which immediately reminded me of an annoying boy in my son’s Year 7 class who was always bragging about the size of his dad’s car.

“Well, I just reckon we’ve got the very best people in this country,” he said. “And we’ve obviously got the best medical regulator, much better than the French have, much better than the Belgians have, much better than the Americans have. That doesn’t surprise me at all because we’re a much better country than every single one of them.”

It got worse. He pointed out, seemingly without irony, given our top three world-leading death rate, that “people in this country are going to be the first in the Western world – in the world – to get that Pfizer vaccine”, as if the rest of the world was somehow sitting shooting the breeze instead of racing desperately to find a cure.

The only insightful thing I can draw from the whole fiasco is that it was an interesting – if horrifying – window into what Cabinet meetings must be like if this is the level of global self-awareness.

I’ll spare you the rest of the cringeworthy details but basically, when pressed by the host, he continued to dig himself further into a hole of his own making instead of seizing the opportunity to turn the conversation back round to his own remit – schools.

After all, this man is ultimately in charge of our children’s education. In case he didn’t realise, that’s the bit that involves learning about geography, history, chemistry, biology and international relations.

When the Prime Minister moves him from this Cabinet role, as surely he must, please, please don’t make him Foreign Secretary – or we will be all doomed.

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