Gavin Williamson is the Secretary of State for Education and the man that oversaw the shocking debacle over the recent A Level and GCSE results. A total farce that caused so much anger and shock that it will be a surprise if he is ever seen in government again. Although, it would seem that no matter how appalling they are in their jobs, they get fired, wait a beat and are then shoehorned into the next top job.
Is the UK so short of talent that this limited pool is all we have to select from? I should point out that l have voted Conservative for as long as l can remember, not that l am a Conservative but the options have always been so unsavoury, but surely we can do better than this? Where is Keir Starmer during this farce? Surely this is a wide open goal for Labour? Is it time for a proper third party?
Williamson was born in 1976 and has been Sec.State for Education since 2019, and the MP for South Stafford- shire since 2010. Previously he held the position of Secretary of Defence from 2017-2019 and served as Chief Whip from 2016-2017.
His past in politics has not exactly been covered in glory. On May 1st 2019, he was dismissed as Defence Secretary for the leak from the National Security Council over the Huawei 5G network contract, and strenuously denied being the leaker. One presumes he was not believed and he was booted out. Theresa May said that she had ‘compelling evidence’ that Williamson had leaked the information and that she had ‘lost confidence in his ability to serve in his role’. Williamson vehemently denied the allegation, saying that he ‘swore on his children’s lives he was not responsible’, and said that a ‘thorough and formal inquiry’ would have vindicated his position. At the time, Opposition MPs called for a police investigation into the matter, but the government closed the matter quick smart.
In February 2018, Williamson dined with Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of a former Putin minister, in exchange for a £30,000 donation to the Conservative party. We never found out what he got for his money!
Later that month, Williamson alleged that Jeremy Corbyn, in meeting a Czech diplomat (later revealed to be a spy) during the 1980s, had ‘betrayed’ his country. In response to the statement, a spokesman for Corbyn stated: ‘Gavin Williamson should focus on his job and not give credence to entirely false and ridiculous smears’.
Williamson supported the Saudi Arabian-led military intervention in Yemen against the Shia Houthis despite concerns from human rights activists and Labour MPs about war crimes allegedly committed by the Saudi military. Over 100,000 Yemenis have since been killed.
On February 11th 2019, Williamson delivered the speech ‘Defence in Global Britain’ at the Royal United Services Institute, outlining the future direction of the British armed forces. The speech, among other things, outlined plans to send Britain’s new aircraft carrier to the Pacific. The Chinese Government in turn cancelled trade talks with Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, and prompted Hammond to state that the decision to deploy the aircraft carrier was premature. The Mail on Sunday quoted an unnamed ally of Hammond comparing Williamson to Private Pike, a hapless character in the sitcom Dad’s Army.
He seems to be totally loyal too as following David Cameron’s resignation, Williamson ‘privately vowed’ to stop the front-runner Boris Johnson from ever becoming Conservative Party leader as he was ‘not fit for the job’. He assessed Theresa May to be the likeliest candidate to defeat Johnson, offered his help to her, and was invited to be her parliamentary campaign manager.
When May became prime minister, Williamson was appointed Chief Whip. A quick switch of sides and he becomes a ‘loyal’ supporter of Boris just in time to snatch a job.
In January 2018, it was reported that Williamson, while he was Managing Director of fireplace firm Elgin & Hall in 2004, had an affair with a married colleague. He discussed the affair in an interview with the Daily Mail which he called a ‘dreadful mistake’. It was reported that a senior co-worker stated that the woman involved was in tears when reporting the relationship to her line manager and that Williamson was subsequently the subject of a meeting with managers. Days after this meeting, he left the firm and we can only wonder what his wife Joanne, a former primary school teacher, thought about that?
Wait a couple of heartbeats and bang, he is straight into the role in Education and hasn’t he done well there?
We all knew that the exam results for 2020 were going to be a problem due to the coronavirus and eventually, students were told that they would not have to sit their exams and that their teachers assessed grades would suffice. This was a shock and was met with a mixture of horror and relief from students but was generally accepted as the only option available. Williamson then had the temerity to accuse the teachers of over marking and instead, scrapped that and introduced a computer algorithm to access the results. It really does not take a genius to recognise that there was going to be a monumental cock-up here as the government does not have the finest track record with technology. Williamson was warned many times that there was a problem but for some inexplicable reason, he ignored the advice and charged ahead. So why are the career prospects of Gavin Williamson – the education secretary who presided over what even some usually supportive newspapers have described as a “farce” or a “humiliation” – not in tatters? It’s not just students, teachers and parents who are scratching their heads over this question – but some Conservative MPs too. One of them said: ‘Any minister who makes children cry is not in a good place.’ Another pointed out that he had plenty of time to prepare for how students should be assessed – exams were cancelled five months ago, on March 18th.
Yet Downing Street maintains the prime minister has full confidence in Gavin Williamson. Why? One reason is that he has a “human shield,” in the form of England’s exam regulator, Ofqual.
The case for the Williamson defence is, essentially, that he was asking the right questions of the regulator but was getting the wrong answers.
It should be said that it was the education secretary himself who decided in March that he did not want to see “grade inflation” as a result of teachers’ assessments – and that this year’s results would have to be “moderated” or “standardised”.
Mr Williamson claims that the principle of “moderation” was widely accepted – and that in more normal times there would always be pupils who failed to meet teachers’ expectations in real exams.
The Department for Education argues that there was also widespread consultation over the criteria Ofqual would deploy when standardising the grades. So the only issue was how that standardisation would be conducted rather than any debate over whether it was right in principle.
Alarm bells about the effects of standardisation were loudly rung by the cross-party education committee – under the chairmanship of Conservative MP Rob Halfon – on July 11th. Williamson ignored the bells Committee members called for more transparency over the algorithm Ofqual was using to standardise grades – and demanded that it be published immediately to allow for proper scrutiny. Williamson refused.
The committee also warned that Ofqual’s model “does not appear to include any mechanism to identify whether groups such as black and minority ethnic (BAME), free-school- meals-eligible pupils, and those with special educational needs have been systematically disadvantaged by calculated grades”.
Williamson’s allies say that he took these concerns seriously – he did not, as he knew that he could just blame the entire thing on Ofqual if it was a disaster. True to form, the head of Englands exam regulator, Sally Collier has been forced to fall on her sword and resign. How long can this man blame everything on everyone else? He was obviously so worried about the matter that he went on holiday a few days before the results cameout!
Schools minister Nick Gibb and education department officials met the senior figures at Ofqual on July 16th and pressed for clarification on how the algorithm would impact pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and from ethnic minority communities.
They received nothing.
Williamson focussed his energy on improving the appeals system and, ultimately, ensuring that it was free to use, therefore ignored the fact that the problem was coming and went about sorting out his response, rather than sorting the problem.
And many MPs are questioning why, right up to the last minute, Williamson was praising what was “a fair and robust system for the overwhelming majority of students”. And declaring there would be “no U-turn, no change”. A former minister with a background in education stated that because the education secretary had nailed his colours so firmly to a teetering mast, it was ‘inevitable’ that he would have to go. But it seems nothing is inevitable in politics.
Boris Johnson himself is not seen as devoid of blame by some of his own MPs. Only days after the results, the PM was also defending the “robust” system of assessment in England.
As one MP put it, ‘the captain of the ship was too hands off’. Indeed, for some – that captain changed direction as though he were on the bridge of an oil tanker, when what was required was the swift launching of the lifeboats.
So here we should assess why this is so important and that might be best done by a real case study. We will call her Mary. Mary had been a stellar student for the past three years, having achieved top grades in every test, been Head Girl for the past two years and generally accepted as the brightest of the bright. She was predicated to receive two A* A* and an A, at the very least, and her teachers all predicted that she would do even better. She had been accepted by Oxford as a medical student and one day would be a fine doctor. When the disastrous results were released, she got an A, a B and a U!! Oxford immediately withdrew the offer and as she had no insurance university, she will go into clearing. While universities have vowed to do their best to accommodate these students, some institutions have warned places may have to be deferred until next year.
Can you imagine that this is your daughter? A super achiever who has worked her fingers to the bone to rise above the crowd and achieve her dreams. Dreams that have been snatched away from her by a pygmy politician who will, no doubt, just be moved over to a new department when the dust settles. Apparently, she has not stopped crying for a week, has stopped eating and just feels that her life is not worth living. Because of a computer, and a totally incompetent education secretary who was warned on countless occasions, by countless institutions, that this was likely to happen but saw fit to ignore all advice - and go on holiday.
Hundreds of thousands of students were deeply affected by this with a reported serious spike in mental health issues. And let’s not forget that these students are the future of this country, the very people who will be in charge when many of us are dribbling in a care home and they are a huge swath of students who will never, ever vote conservative.
But there are reasons why he hasn’t received a ministerial P45. This is not an administration which does resignations. Boris Johnson is loyal to those who are loyal and useful to him.
The clamour amongst Conservative backbenchers for his adviser Dominic Cummings to go over his lockdown trip to Durham, subsided as Downing Street dug in its heels.
The controversy over the Richard Desmond planning decision has not cost housing secretary Robert Jenrick his job. And Gavin Williamson has been helpful to Boris Johnson behind the scenes – as he was to Theresa May until he was sacked, and got behind Mr Johnson’s leadership bid. A former chief whip, his reputation as a minister may have suffered but not his abilities as a fixer. No 10 may want to retain him inside the tent.
But then there is an oddity about the man. Known to keep a pet tarantula in his commons office to intimidate and scare juniors and to let you know ‘he bites’. Then there was the very odd official image taken on the day he announced the exam reversal. With his hands clenched and gaze fixed, it was a picture likely intended to show the education secretary’s steely determination to fix the exams fiasco. But the image of Gavin Williamson, taken in his office only served to trigger bewilderment – because of the whip and the little red book positioned in front of him. This was not an error, this whip was very purposefully placed there to make a point. I am in charge and don’t mess with me.
Former Tory MP Sarah Wollaston, who defected to Change UK before joining the Liberal Democrats, tweeted: ‘So much immaturity & poor judgement summed up by the secretary of state for education #Williamson posing with a whip & a mug. In a crowded field, the most under-demoted of inadequates in government.’
Some suggested the picture was an attempt to convey a message that, given his previous role as chief whip under Theresa May, he knows where the bodies are buried and will not go quietly if he loses his place in the cabinet. One caller to LBC elaborated on the theory: “The photo that was released yesterday is just a key example of them trolling us because that whip on the desk, with his little red book placed handily on it, is a sign to say, ‘You come after me and I’m coming after you.’
But in modern day politics, you can screw up as often as you like as long as you have the dirt on someone at the top.
Despite all the aforementioned cock-ups, in 2015, he was sworn in as a member of the Privy Council of the United Kingdom, giving him the Honorific Title ‘The Right Honourable’ for life. In the 2016 Prime Minister’s Resignation Honours, Williamson was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) ‘for political and public service’.
Like me, you might despair at the state of modern British politics and the merry go round of minsters into job after job regardless of the quality of their work, their personal lives, their attitudes towards junior staff, their morals or their total inability to do the job.
Imagine this in the corporate world? He wouldn’t last an hour in a top corporate job and would be put out to graze running a burger van on the A27.