However answering questions in Parliament about arrangements for the reopening of schools is not an optional extra; it is his democratic duty as Education Secretary.
And the fact that Williamson went AWOL on Tuesday, leaving his deputy Nick Gibb to respond to the indignation of MPs, is symptomatic of a Minister asleep on the job, out of his depth or both.
This was not one of those more trivial urgent questions intended to make mischief. Quite the opposite. Reopening of schools, colleges and universities is fundamental to both the lifting of lockdown restrictions – and ensuring that the future prospects of young people, already compromised, are not further hit.
And the fact that Scarborough-born Williamson did not attend Parliament, and listen to the many sensible suggestions put forward by backbenchers, was insulting – the political equivalent of an errant student ignoring a summons to the headmaster’s study – and symptomatic of a government in denial about the state of education.
For, while the reopening of education settings depends on the country’s ability to suppress Covid, a capable Cabinet Minister would be leading these discussions rather than waiting for Boris Johnson to break the news that schools will stay shut until at least March 8 because of both the virus and, let’s face it, the DfE’s lack of readiness.
Instead observers of Tuesday’s proceedings were left bemused by Williamson’s deputy having to fend off questions about the case for opening schools in areas of low infection and provision of mental health support for students.
They were also open-mouthed when Imran Ahmad Khan, the backbench Wakefield MP, used this occasion to accuse the SNP of being more fixated with a second independence referendum rather than school standards.
Talk about desperate. Yet, while Khan was receiving the congratulations of Tory whips for his knockabout politics, he, frankly, should have been as ashamed as Williamson for his antics. After all, the Minister only owes his place in the Cabinet to his acquiescence of Boris Johnson’s Brexit policy after being sacked as Defence Secretary by Theresa May, the former PM, for leaking sensitive information.
Since his surprising appointment in July 2019, the Department for Education has been repeatedly accused of thwarting attempts to drive up school standards in disadvantaged regions.
And, since the pandemic, Williamson has presided over last summer’s exams fiasco; did not foresee this latest lockdown; was not involved in the chaotic closure of schools this month and appears to have no semblance of plan for their safe reopening and the vaccination of school staff.
Failures worthy of dismissal in normal times – past education secretaries have resigned for less – this is while the less well-off families find themselves ever more thankful for the enlightenment of footballer Marcus Rashford, and all those backing his free school meals crusade, as well as the goodwill of those tech bosses, and local charities, sourcing laptops to help with home learning.
Against this backdrop, Williamson, now Education Secretary in name only, is fortunate that the Commons is benign because so many MPs are operating remotely – the atmosphere would be more febrile in normal times.
Yet the robotic responses to the few broadcast interviews that he’s undertaken, most notably with the BBC’s Nick Robinson and Piers Morgan of Good Morning Britain, point to a Minister incapable of thinking for himself or making a coherent case for education in Cabinet and to the country at large. When asked if he had offered his resignation, he simply replied ad infinitum: “My one focus is making sure we deliver the very best for all children.”
‘Very best’? No wonder he’s turned down every request to appear on Channel Four News since he was appointed more than 18 months ago – the jaw-dropping revelation by presenter Cathy Newman on Monday after Williamson had been asked to respond to the report by Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield about the pandemic’s toll on the mental health of pupils.
That is his right. But such interviews are also part and parcel of a Cabinet Minister’s responsibilities as the relentless example of Health Secretary Matt Hancock shows. And that does not excuse the Education Secretary’s disregard of Parliament and plight of all those teachers and parents who haven’t a clue what he will do next.
Given this, one final question takes on added importance and urgency today: where’s Gavin Williamson and what will it take for Boris Johnson to sack him?
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