“We must never forget” intoned Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education, arachnophile and epitome of all that is useless in the Government, “that the purpose of education is to give people the skills they need to get a good and meaningful job.”
You may think that this in itself should immediately disqualify Gavin Williamson from being left in charge of a nation’s education. But however crass and philistine Williamson’s assessment of the purpose of teaching and learning might be, the instruction he received at Scarborough Sixth Form College and Bradford University seems to have done the trick. He has, after all, spent the last decade or so getting –and then cocking up– a whole series of good and meaningful jobs.
Elected in 2010, Williamson elbowed his way to prominence as David Cameron’s Parliamentary bag carrier. When Cameron fell, Williamson –then a Remainer and furious at Boris Johnson’s treachery– was instrumental in imposing Theresa May on the nation, running her successful ‘Block Boris’ leadership campaign. She rewarded Gavin first by making him chief whip, then promoting him to Defence Secretary.
This, in hindsight, was a mistake. Williamson –in his element when slithering through a mire of Parliamentary plot and intrigue– was living his best life in the whips’ office. He and Cronus, a pet Tarantula which inhabited a glass tank on his desk, scared weak-willed and venal Tory MPs witless. He ran a tight ship in the Parliamentary party, until things started to fall to bits after the horribly misjudged 2017 election.
Promoted from this skulduggery to the heights of a great ministry of state, Williamson’s limitations soon became apparent. Gavin did not grow in dignity to fill the office of Secretary of State for Defence; instead, he looked like an overpromoted little weasel. Quickly dubbed ‘Private Pike’ by cruel hacks at The Daily Mail, his ministerial tenure ended in disgrace when he leaked information about Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s 5G network. Despite swearing on his children’s lives –yuck– that he didn’t do it, Gavin had to go, but it wasn’t long before he was back. Sniffing the wind, he offered his services to his old nemesis Boris, and gave early support to Johnson’s campaign to succeed May. When Boris won, he paid Gavin off with a Cabinet job at Education.
It is fair to say that Gavin Williamson has not distinguished himself in this post any more brilliantly than he did at the MoD. Covid-19 has made fools of many of our leaders, but Williamson is nurturing a singular reputation for incompetence. True, he has to deal with the truculent wreckers of the teaching unions, whose main purpose in life now seems to be to ensure no-one gets taught at all. But his rotten decisions over exams are now causing the Government serious reputational harm. It was wrong to cancel exams at all, if perhaps inevitable given the National Education Union’s Covid-cowardice. Having cancelled them, error was compounded upon error by deciding that instead of forcing universities to do the best they could with the evidence available to them –a student’s past academic record and the grades predicted by their teachers– grades would instead be magicked up by a computer program.
The decision was driven by the fear that placing excessive reliance on predicted grades would lead to galloping grade inflation. The fear was well-founded, if overblown. Ofqual predicted a worst-case scenario of this year’s GCSE results –if assessed only on the basis of predicted grades– showing a 28% rise in grades at A and A* (in fact, grades at this level rose by a less lurid 5.2%). 2020 could in any event have been written off as a freak year, and 2021’s grades compared to 2019 instead, but Williamson demanded of exams watchdog Ofqual that they come up with a system to compensate for over-optimistic grade predictions; to produce results that would align with previous years, and to instil confidence in universities and employers that the grades mean something.
And so it came to pass that balls labelled A to F were sent tumbling through the educational equivalent of Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot and Merlin. Cunning algorithms and the law of averages did the rest, and lo! the results were jolly similar overall to the previous year’s outcomes with no grade inflation. Job done!
Satisfaction with this outcome lasted for all of five minutes, until hundreds of thousands of individual pupils found that the A-Level grades awarded by algorithm did not in any way reflect their attainment or ability. The injustice was worst amongst pupils at big state schools: unable to distinguish dross from gold, the wretched algorithm just gave everyone at a bog-standard comp a D. Small private schools, on the other hand, did rather well out of it. You cannot –as the Welsh and Scottish Governments had already recognised– grade individual students by automated guesswork, and the Department was forced into a squealing U-turn.
As in most cases when something goes badly wrong in public life, you might spot from the corner of your eye a corpulent figure with a mop of blonde hair sneaking away to leave someone else with the blame. Sure enough, as students up and down the country vented their fury, Boris did a Macavity; lurking in a bell tent, pitched without the farmer’s permission in a field near Applecross. In this instance, though, Williamson –despite his valiant attempts to blame Ofqual for doing exactly what he asked them to do– deserves to be the fall guy, and should fall.
For the time being, though, he won’t. There may well be another series of cock-ups when schools go back in September, and losing two Education Secretaries in a month could look like carelessness. So despite his shambolic record –and rumbling dissatisfaction on the Tory backbenches– Gavin Williamson is toughing it out. When the papers interviewed him post-fiasco, pictures of Gavin’s desk showed the weird adornments of a hunting whip and little red book: a warning, presumably, that he knows from his days as chief whip where the bodies are buried, and will exact merciless revenge on colleagues who call for him to quit. The spider, like Boris, was missing. Goodness knows what has happened to it; if Williamson is as competent a pet owner as he is a Minister, it’s probably dead.
This article was first published in The Pembrokeshire Herald.