Nothing in the intervening period has suggested that the Yorkshire-born and Bradford University-educated Cabinet Minister has the skills necessary to remain as Education Secretary.
Quite the opposite. Williamson – rather than the principled ‘schools catch-up tsar’ Sir Kevan Collins – should have resigned this week after the Treasury vetoed plans to help pupils catch up on lost learning and, in turn, cast doubt on the sincerity and seriousness of the wider ‘levelling up’ policy and its status.
But such statesmanship would also have been out of character for a Minister whose grip on power appears stronger than his competence.
As David Cameron’s Parliamentary Private Secetrary, Williamson was advising the then PM in June 2016 during the Brexit referendum. A fortune teller from his home town of Scarborough might have been a better bet.
He then ran Theresa May’s successful leadership campaign – his motivation then, ironically, was to stop Boris Johnson becoming PM – and, as Chief Whip, was one of her key confidantes when she ultimately made the disastrous decision to call a snap election in 2017. That ended well, didn’t it?
And when Sir Michael Fallon was forced to resign as Defence Secretary later that year, Williamson exploited May’s political weakness and put forward his own name. She demurred – even though there were more able, and better qualified, candidates.
Yet, in a rare show of decisiveness, May sacked Williamson in the final weeks of her premiership following the leaking of confidential National Security Council information. This would, in normal times, have been the end of Williamson. Not so. He then manoeuvred himself into a position to run Johnson’s leadership campaign in 2019 and was ‘rewarded’ with the role of Education Secretary.
Evidently, all that Williamson, a one-time Remainer, had to do was convince Johnson that he would support his Brexit policy – schools policy did not matter.
This background matters because it explains the dismay at the series of policy calamities that Williamson has presided over during the Covid crisis from last year’s exams chaos to total confusion over the opening of schools for one day in January and now Sir Kevan’s departure.
It also needs to be set in the context of the DfE’s aloofness over the Government’s supposedly flagship ‘levelling up’ agenda and the importance of school standards to improving the life chances of people of deprived areas so poorer children are not left even further behind.
This was why the Prime Minister recruited Sir Kevan – a former council chief executive who led the transformation of schools in Tower Hamlets – to be Education Recovery Commissioner. It was an effective admission that Williamson was not up to the job.
What Sir Kevan appears not to have appreciated, however, is the level of additional detail that would have been required if the Treasury was to sign off the £15bn blueprint he proposed for longer school days and so on. When just £1.4bn of new money was set aside, he quit, described the decision as “half-hearted” and said it wasn’t “credible that a successful recovery can be achieved with a programme of support of this size”.
I don’t blame him for any naivety – he’s not a career politician. Equally Chancellor Rishi Sunak is right to demand value for money. But one person should have known better – Gavin Williamson – and either he failed to make an adequate case for funding; chose to hang Sir Kevan out to dry because his resented his presence or simply doesn’t know how Whitehall operates over policy.
Whatever the reason, Williamson’s position – already tenuous – is even more untenable because he, and his team, have effectively failed, after a year, to come up with a credible catch-up plan.
Yet this is also evidence that there is no co-ordination or direction to the much-vaunted levelling-up agenda – there needs to be a dedicated Levelling Up Secretary in the Cabinet – and the issue of skills as barely mentioned when two unimpressive junior Ministers gave evidence to Parliament last month.
Effectively the first major test of the Government’s post-Covid levelling up policy – and both Williamson and the PM scored Grade Fs (for failure and farce).
Education disadvantage was profound before Covid. It’s even more pronounced now. And this will continue unless there’s a clear, coherent and costed long-term ‘fix’ to address this.
It’s called investing in a generation and begins with the appointment of a new Education Secretary capable of leading one of the most important Government departments of all. It’s not a job for a political dunce as inept, incapable and ill-suited as Gavin Williamson.
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