Gavin Williamson is proud of his reform agenda – but he will be remembered for Covid and the chaos of exam results

As cabinet shuffles went on, it was one of the least surprising sackings of recent times.

With two tweets, Gavin Williamson finally announced his departure as Secretary of Education – an outing that had been dragged on for over a year.

Mr. Williamson’s tenure has in fact got off to a promising start. Following his dismissal from his post as Defense Secretary by Theresa May, a wise decision to back Boris Johnson in the Conservative leadership race secured him the Cabinet seat he had dreamed of.

Just a month after his appointment, Mr Williamson unveiled welcome £ 7billion funding for schools in England, and he showed the first signs of wanting to adopt bolder policies than his overly cautious predecessors, Damian Hinds and Justine Greening.

But then Covid-19 happened.

The pandemic forced Mr Williamson to adopt measures no other education secretary had ever considered. In March 2020, schools were closed to the majority of students, while all exams were canceled.

Above all, it was the alternative arrangements for results in 2020 – and the disaster that followed – that sealed Mr Williamson’s eventual fate.

While England weren’t alone in trying to moderate A-level and GCSE scores using an algorithm, Williamson was surprisingly naive about how results of such a system would be received by adolescents and their families. Just days before the Level A results in 2020 – and after the Scottish results had already sparked a backlash – Mr Williamson’s team still couldn’t see the colossal iceberg they were rushing on. It was after the exams debacle that briefings on his demotion began in earnest.

Other blunders followed. For unfathomable reasons, Mr Williamson fought over holiday meals with footballer Marcus Rashford (more on him later). It was something he could only lose.

It is a credit to Mr Williamson that he realized early on that the children would be hurt by the lockdown, and he always tried to keep them in school. But even these good intentions led him to pitfalls. In December 2020, he threatened to sue a London council that had wanted to switch to distance learning. The board was to keep schools open – just as the Alpha variant (which had previously been linked by the government to potentially higher transmission) was exploding in schools in the capital.

Likewise, in January, he stubbornly pursued his plans to open schools. Primary schools opened for just one day – mixing up millions of children and adults before the lockdown everyone knew was coming.

The trauma of the results in 2020 meant that Mr Williamson naturally wanted the reviews to take place in 2021. But he did not consult at an early stage on a Plan B, meaning that alternative arrangements had to be concocted at the look forward to when exams were canceled for the second time. .

In his final weeks at work, the tragicomic aspects of Mr Williamson’s tenure once again came to the fore, with the Education Secretary apparently mistaking Marcus Rashford for rugby player Maro Itoje.

There were positive points in Mr. Williamson’s passage. He emphasized vocational training and itineraries for those who do not go to university. Education reforms after 16 years – such as a new right to a lifetime loan – could also bear fruit in the years to come. These are the policies Mr. Williamson highlighted in his farewell tweets.

Mr. Williamson operated under more difficult conditions than any of his predecessors. He was also not entirely responsible for the confusion that characterized the government’s coronavirus education policies. Ultimately, the responsibility for these gigantic decisions lies with the Prime Minister – it was Mr Johnson’s vacillation that led to January’s half-armed reopening, to take one example.

But in the final analysis, Mr Williamson’s time as Education Secretary will be remembered for Covid and the exam chaos, rather than for good intentions and a handful of far-sighted reforms.

About Natalee Broderick

Natalee Broderick

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