Why Gavin Williamson is the worst Conservative Education Secretary yet - Jayne Dowle

Tomorrow my daughter Lizzie goes back to school for the final time. Year 11, how did that happen?

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson speaking to MPs in the House of Commons in London

It’s a cliché, I know, but the years have flown by. It doesn’t seem two minutes since she toddled through the primary school gate in her grey pinafore and pigtails.

And now we’re having an endlessly circular debate about the new head’s stringent uniform rules, which demand “polishable” shoes and no earrings – “not even studs, Mum, how can that be right?”

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I agree with my daughter. Some school rules are daft and don’t improve a child’s ability to concentrate. If Lizzie has learned how to do algebra and analyse poetry and trot off the relevant dates in the history of medicine, as a parent, I’ve learned that logic doesn’t always feature when it comes to school life.I’ve explored behavioural theories and as a school governor, taken part in quite a few debates myself about discipline. I’ve also become a passionate advocate for raising aspirations.

Over the years, I’ve grown acutely aware of the ever-widening gulf between state and independent schools, the issues with recruitment and retention of the very best teachers in deprived areas of our region and the fact that successive Conservative Education Secretaries seem totally out of touch with the realities of classroom life.

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At the time, I was very critical about Michael Gove, but at least he had a plan. And I do agree, on balance, with the rigour of the GCSEs he reformed. It’s not until you’re watching in awe your daughter swotting for mocks that you realise the depth and breadth of each subject and the levels of critical thinking required.

However, Gavin Williamson, the present incumbent, has to be the least impressive of the lot. He does have one talent – annoying all of the people all of the time, teachers, parents, education specialists.

Lately, he’s been spouting off about how it’s a parental responsibility to ensure that children are regularly tested at home for Covid, seemingly quite oblivious to the fact that for many families, worrying about putting food on the table will be a higher priority.

And then up he popped on Sky News the other day. Would he advocate a return to school bubbles, the presenter asked. He mumbled something about measures being in place, then refused to elucidate further.

I’ve learned, sadly, that education has become a dividing line and that my daughter, who wants to go to university, will be judged negatively because she went to an academy secondary school in a Northern town, even if she comes out with a string of top grades at GCSE.

The Government still talks about levelling up, but if you ask me, there’s more inequality now than there was 38 years ago when I stood in Lizzie’s (polishable) shoes and faced my O-levels.

Next September, all being well, Lizzie will start sixth form college to do A-levels. She can’t wait. The last two years have not been easy; months working remotely from her bedroom, school trips a hazy memory, friends disappearing into isolation and the nagging sense of fear that has dogged what should have been happy and relatively carefree years.

She will start Year 11 trepidatious for her GCSEs but equally as worried about what’s going to happen if there’s a Covid outbreak. Amazingly, Lizzie’s cohort will be the third set of GCSE pupils to have their public exams blighted by lockdowns, exam cancellations and the threat of being sent home should a Covid case be discovered amongst their year group.

In some ways, they feel like the forgotten ones; there is still no clear news on whether exams will go ahead in the traditional way next summer. We await instructions from Mr Williamson on that one. Wish us luck.

And also, following this year’s bumper crop of results – with the percentage of top grades (7/As and above) rising to 28.9 per cent from 26.2 per cent last year – there are fears that in summer 2022, assessors and examiners will come down hard to balance things out. Hell hath no fury like a Year 11 who thinks they have been badly done to.

Lizzie’s group are already planning what steps they might take if their final grades seem unfair. Mr Williamson might like to start earmarking extra resources now.

Sadly, they will end up pretty powerless against the might of the examination boards. Too often, decisions are taken by faceless organisations beyond our control. I’m not sure that was the major lesson I wanted my daughter to leave secondary school with, but as I often tell her, school does – one way or another – prepare us all for adult life.