'Gavin, are you all right? I'm a bit worried about you'

Education secretary Gavin Williamson has been making strange decisions – I'm concerned about him, says Robin Bevan
17th December 2020, 1:38pm
Robin Bevan

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'Gavin, are you all right? I'm a bit worried about you'

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/gavin-are-you-all-right-im-bit-worried-about-you
Coronavirus: As A School Leader, I Am Genuinely Concerned About Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, Says Robin Bevan

"Gavin, are you all right? I know you've had a tough few months…"

One of the delights of school leadership is the opportunity to work with staff who have such diverse personalities. In a secondary context, it would be easy to associate individual traits with different specialist subjects, but it's far more complex than that.

You soon get to know the ways in which individual colleagues react. Some have an endless capacity for uncertainty. Others plan so far ahead that any imposed change feels - to them - like an attempted assassination.

There are individuals who will go so far above and beyond the call of duty that it's not good for their own wellbeing. Others will refuse to undertake additional duties if instructed, but might happily volunteer, given half a chance.

Coronavirus: Gavin Williamson's increasingly odd behaviour

We all know, however, that all of these characteristics become more evident under pressure. As we all become increasingly exhausted, so we become more exaggerated versions of ourselves.

That's why I'm worried about education secretary Gavin Williamson.

I've been watching his increasingly odd behaviour, and I really do need to find time for a quiet chat: "Gavin, are you all right? I know you've had a tough few months…"

You see, when Gavin is under pressure, he loses his ability for strategic insight. I know this has a damaging effect on team morale and operations. He becomes increasingly fixated on the tactic and not the objective. It's caused problems before, and is best avoided.

He has said that he wants all schools to remain open - apparently, even if no pupils are left - because it is "really important". When he is seeing things more clearly, he recognises that what actually matters is sustaining the best-quality provision for our children. And, Gavin, sometimes that might mean remote learning for some classes or rotas for year groups. But he knows this, because he's accepted that it's true for the start of term in January. Just not in December.

He wants all students to sit their GCSE and A-level examinations - even if they have only completed parts of the course or had limited access to their specialist teachers for months - because he thinks it's "the fairest way". Gavin, it is not - and never has been - the fairest way. And, even now, there are still alternatives.

Making decisions without thinking through the consequences 

At his best, Gavin can see the consequences of his actions. But, under pressure, he tends to make individual decisions without thinking clearly about the second-order impacts. He also loses his grasp of arithmetic with large numbers. 

When he suggested that every pupil on remote learning would have a daily check-in from teachers, he overlooked that this would require 15,000 full-time staff. His latest mass-testing idea sounds clever, but would require more than 100,000 individuals trained as public-health practitioners - with no resources.

When he is really tired, he smiles as he makes each decision, pleased with himself that he has solved that problem and can move on to the next. He gets disappointed when others don't smile with him.

That's why, as a school leader, I'm genuinely concerned that I may need to have a quiet conversation with him: "Gavin, are you all right? I know you've had a tough few months…"

Oh, and me, I hear you ask? I have become used to extended periods of exhaustion: that is the nature of school leadership in a profoundly underfunded public service. I have learned from experience to amplify my strategic reflection: no rushed decisions in the last week of term; listen to the staff; ask what really matters. 

I also know that, under pressure, there is an ever-increasing need to extend empathy and to show genuine appreciation. To thank everyone on the staff team. You might want to do the same, Gavin.

Dr Robin Bevan is headteacher at Southend High School for Boys, and national president of the National Education Union

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