The Daily Telegraph
Hundreds of students gathered outside Downing Street yesterday to protest against the downgrading of tens of thousands of A-level results. They called on Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, to resign. Critics say the decision to calculate grades by a statistical model has disproportionately disadvantaged poorer students
IT is never ideal to be trending on Twitter alongside pictures of Frank Spencer, the accidentprone sitcom character – not least when you’re a Cabinet minister in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. Gavin Williamson’s repeated “Ooh, Betty” moments appear to have cast him as the joker in Boris Johnson’s pack, as a Government already facing heavy criticism for its coronavirus response now appears to be overseeing an A-level and looming GCSE disaster.
Williamson’s predecessor Michael Gove became a hate figure among Left-wing millennials for his controversial education reforms, but a new generation looks set to turn its back on the Tories thanks to Williamson’s perceived treacherous tenure as Education Secretary.
With the knives already out among Conservative backbenchers, who have variously described the unpopular former chief whip as a “disgrace”, a “farce” and “useless”, it is fair to say the artful Yorkshireman is currently considered bottom of the ministerial class of 2020.
Allies insist he has “always had enemies” in the party. But there is a school of thought that Williamson hasn’t been making the grade since he was appointed in July last year, surviving due to his loyalty to Boris Johnson and his knowledge, as a former chief whip, of where the “bodies are buried”.
The former defence secretary, once ridiculed for telling Russia to “go away and shut up” in the wake of the Salisbury Novichok poisoning, was first criticised in May after backtracking on plans to open schools in June.
Even MPS in his own party argued he should have made sure it was possible to observe social distancing in classrooms before promising parents that primary schools would be back open for a month before the summer holidays.
The tarantula-owning MP for South Staffordshire was then rebuked for failing to ensure disadvantaged pupils had access to remote learning devices, and was forced to perform another about-turn in
June after Manchester
United striker Marcus Rashford raised the subject of
‘It’s a miracle that Frank Spencer is still in a job … if his handling of this week’s GCSE results is as shambolic, then he surely has to go’
free school meal vouchers during the summer break, saying “the system isn’t built for families like mine to succeed”.
Having been accused of being “invisible” for the first half of the summer holidays, with Nick Gibb, the schools minister, left to do a lot of the heavy lifting, Williamson has since been blamed for the Government’s “shambolic” handling of 250,000 pupils’ A-level results after two fifths were downgraded.
Worse, poorer pupils were disproportionately affected when compared with students from wealthier backgrounds, leaving the Prime Minister’s “levelling up” agenda in tatters.
This is quite an achievement for the former student of Scarborough College, one of the few comprehensively educated ministers in government.
Williamson, 44, is now being accused of leaving pupils facing an uncertain future after Ofqual announced on Saturday it was “reviewing” guidance it had published just hours earlier on how to appeal against A-level and GCSE grades using mock exam results.
Embarrassingly, it was Williamson who announced late last week that pupils could use the mock exam outcome as the basis for an appeal in a move dubbed “lastminute.com” by colleagues who are increasingly questioning his judgment.
As one senior Tory put it last night: “It’s a miracle that Frank Spencer is still in a job. Why not just write 2020 off altogether? It’s not a normal year; he should be telling Ofqual to take it out of any future statistics. If his handling of this week’s GCSE results is as shambolic, then he surely has to go.”
Yet few have confidence in the PM having the courage to expel the man credited with “whipping” two thirds of Tories to support his leadership campaign.
Last night, one veteran backbencher even went so far as to suggest that Williamson was “protected” as he helped bring Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings on to Mr Johnson’s campaign last year.
“He’s completely incompetent and useless presentationally but he’s one of the most devious MPS in the House of Commons,” they said. “He aligned himself with Boris very early on and it seems he is being rewarded for his loyalty and his compliance.”
The married father-of-two similarly acted as teacher’s pet to both David Cameron and Theresa May, although the latter did ask him to resign in May 2019 over Huawei and the UK’S 5G network. He refused and was therefore sacked.
Could he once again be placed in detention? The pressure is certainly on. Students have already begun petitioning the Government to abandon the algorithm and threatened to bring a judicial review if it “fails to come up with a fairer system,” after it was suggested two million GCSE results might be downgraded.
Yet Mr Williamson’s critics are looking beyond results day – to the new term in September. He has already been blamed by some for “kowtowing” to teacher union chiefs.
With some unions once again agitating to reopen schools on a “week on, week off ” basis – despite ONS data showing nine in 10 parents are willing to send their children back full-time – and experts insisting schools are safe, Tories are calling on the beleaguered Education Secretary to take a “Thatcherite” hard line.
Said one veteran MP: “He should be ringing every local authority and academy head, saying their future funding is conditional on both pupils and teachers being back in school.”
He added: “Unfortunately, Gavin is the weakest link in a weak Cabinet.”