Gavin Williamson knighthood – Why he is more than slightly out of his depth as Education Secretary

Sir Gavin is not unique in not being good at it – he is unique is in being spectacularly not good at it

Kevin Harcombe
by Kevin Harcombe
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There is usually a dollop of honour ladled out from the government troughs twice-yearly to education, mostly very deserving; it’s always good to see a dedicated lollipop person get an MBE, or a long-serving governor pick up a gong for ‘services to tedious and unnecessary meetings’. Hats off to them all and well done!

Occasionally, however, an honour is bestowed on a person which attracts dumper-truck loads of steaming opprobrium from all quarters – such as the knighthood recently awarded to Sir Gavin Williamson, former Secretary of State for Education.

The post of SoS for Education is akin to the Defence Against the Dark Arts job in the Harry Potter stories; incumbents seldom last long and always come to a bad end.

There have been 13 since 2000. Ed Balls (2007-10), an erudite economics professor at Harvard, is now chiefly remembered for appearing on Strictly.

Michael Gove (2010-14), a journalist, reconstructed the national curriculum to make it more like a third-rate regional grammar school from a 1950s comedy film, and restored traditional sit-down written exams to see which students could remember the most stuff.

In so doing, he demoralised teachers (not difficult, admittedly) and angered parents (also not difficult) to such an extent that his close friend, David Cameron, felt it necessary to sack him before Gove replaced iPads with slates and chalk and introduced compulsory rickets for low attainers.

Gove also memorably issued every school with an ornate copy of the King James’ Bible – a magnificent landmark in English writing, but not at all child-friendly (no book without dinosaurs or underpants has a chance). Currently this mighty tome is being used in most schools to wedge a door open for ventilation to keep Covid-safe.

‘Spectacularly not good’

So, Sir Gavin is not unique in not being good at it – he is unique is in being spectacularly not good at it. He wasn’t just slightly out of his depth as Education Secretary, he was at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, blindfolded and in concrete slippers.

His attempt to solve the Covid exams crisis not with sensible Teacher Assessment but with an untested algorithm (sounds high-tech but was quite possibly just a couple of dice rolled from an egg cup during a cheese and wine lockdown party at the DfE) led to ruined lives and a vitriolic hatred amongst affected parents to the extent that Sir G had to shoulder responsibility and… get the head of Ofqual to take the rap instead of him.

When the school meals crisis blew up and Marcus Rashford was doing the job the government should have been doing, Williamson told a newspaper he had held a Zoom meeting with the campaigning footballer, when in fact he had met a completely different black sportsman, Mario Itoje. In short, Gavin showed all the skill and gravitas of his Labour predecessor, Balls, doing a dad-dancing salsa, Gangnam-Style, on peak time TV.

Gavin Williamson – fireplace salesman

Before stumbling into Parliament, Gavin had been in fireplace sales (salesperson of the year 2007 and 2008) so he does have skills of persuasion. I’m not at all snooty about his previous occupation – sales is tough and he clearly excelled at it, but it didn’t exactly prepare him for the role of Education Secretary. It’s almost as though he got the job just because he was Johnson’s mate.

He progressed from flogging fireplaces to managing leadership campaigns; ‘flogging’ both feckless Theresa May and buffoon Boris Johnson to the Tory membership. That shows real skill – if no understanding of what a good leader actually is. Perhaps his ‘K’ was a thank you from them?

It certainly wasn’t from popularity among parents or teachers, or indeed his fellow Tory MPs, who variously and openly referred to him as Private Pike, the hapless junior bank clerk from Dad’s Army.

I met him briefly and he seemed a pleasant chap and would probably make a really nice neighbour. He is married to a former primary teacher – so he probably knows his way round a laminator – and has been a school governor, but had no other qualification to run the DfE.

The last SoS with any education expertise, the former comprehensive teacher, Estelle Morris, resigned after a year saying she’d realised she wasn’t up to the job. If only she had known ‘not being up to the job’ would come to be qualification for major honours she might have been Dame Estelle by now.

Kevin Harcombe is a Teaching Awards winner and headteacher at Redlands Primary, Fareham. Follow him on Twitter @kevharcombe

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