The question to the Health Secretary came from a member of the public at the Downing Street press conference to launch the Covid vaccine strategy.
“Yes, this is an incredibly important question and my colleague, Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, is sending out over half a million laptops,” said Hancock.
However this display of loyalty is also at total odds with the comments that Hancock reportedly made to senior Government ministers about the hapless Williamson.
When difficult decisions were taken 10 days ago to authorise a third national lockdown, it emerged that schools had insufficient devices for home learning.
This is said to have prompted an incredulous Hancock to take aim at Williamson and the Department for Education. “What have they been doing for the last six months?” he asked. It was a fair question and has not been denied.
But what is even more unbelievable – and unforgivable – is that Williamson was not present at the Downing Street meeting where Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office Minister, and Hancock agreed to close schools.
Again undisputed, there are only two explanations – Williamson is Education Secretary in name only or the Minister was so oblivious to events on the fateful day that the Government was insisting that schools were safe to open while, at the same time, shutting them down.
Either way, the Minister’s perilous position – he should have been sacked during last summer’s exams fiasco – is even more untenable.
As a former 10 Downing Street communications chief told me: “In a functional government, there is no way that the Education Secretary would not be involved.”
It’s a view also held by a distinguished former Education Secretary. “If it is true they cut him out or cut himself out, he’s a goner,” they said. “If I had been kept out of such a key decision, I would have gone.”
Now there will be those who maintain that Scarborough-born Williamson, and his colleagues, are doing their best and deserve the benefit of the doubt. I disagree – the education of the next generation is just about the most important job in Government and should not be left to chance.
Others responded to The Yorkshire Post’s call for Williamson’s resignation by suggesting that culpability rests with the PM who made the original appointment. I certainly believe that last Friday’s limited reshuffle should also have been used by Johnson to appoint a new Education Secretary and signal that mediocrity will not be tolerated, especially over schools.
Meanwhile others have pointed out the legendary Sir Humphrey adage from TV’s Yes Prime Minister: “No Minister, you set the policy, I run the department.” I have to disagree – it falls to Ministers to set the tone and ethos of their department and Williamson has just not done so. He would have been laughed out of his class if he’d delivered last week’s Commons statement on the schools crisis to students rather than MPs.
And this comes back to the question of laptops – and the Health Secretary’s questioning of the DfE’s readiness for an inevitable third lockdown.
Despite the best efforts of the Department for Education that would earn a terse ‘must do better’ on a school report, a school in Halifax is still short of 171 laptops because it has so many pupils on its roll who don’t have a home computer. That’s emblematic of problems across the region.
Meanwhile a leader at a Wakefield academy trust has said the laptops his schools were sent from the DfE are so low in specification that pupils have been advised to use their games consoles instead. You could not make it up.
Andy Goulty, chief executive of the Rodillian Academy Trust, said: “Before Christmas, lots of schools got their full allocation of laptops, but then there were cuts. It’s an ongoing and difficult situation.”
Now Williamson says a further 300,000 laptops and tablets will be delivered to schools, bringing the total to 1.3 million. The question is when?
All this before the latest scandal – the Department for Education permitting free school meals to be sent out to some youngsters that are, frankly, Dickensian with their measliness because the new lockdown was not foreseen. Even Downing Street say they’re ‘completely unacceptable” as footballer Marcus Rashford shows – again – that he’s more effective than Gavin Williamson.
Put simply, children should not be viewed as an after-thought by penny-pinching. Issues like laptops and meals should have been addressed last year, not now, and explain why Britain needs a new Education Secretary rather than a figure of fun bereft of any credibility. [email protected]
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