Is Gavin Williamson just a wayward algorithm?

It's as if the education secretary's brain has been removed in a 'neuro-political' experiment, says Stephen Petty
20th December 2020, 12:00pm
Stephen Petty


Is Gavin Williamson just a wayward algorithm?
Coronavirus & Schools: Has Education Secretary Gavin Williamson Been Turned Into A Robot?

One name has come to dominate those typically brief and masked exchanges between colleagues this week - and it's not Baby Jesus.

Some have speculated that Gavin Williamson is perhaps ill. Many others in schools have been offering blunter and less charitable assessments of the education secretary.

But I know one colleague with a different Gavin theory altogether. It's her belief that his brain in 2019 was the victim of some pioneering "neuro-political experiment", following his sacking as defence secretary.  

The deal agreed with the leaking minister - as he was then - was that if he were prepared to undergo some pioneering "repairs" inside his head, they would relaunch a new version of him. Given the inherent risks, they would try him out first in some peripheral ministerial department where it wouldn't matter much if it all went wrong. Education, for instance.  

Gavin Williamson: An auto-response for every educational issue

So, in some small clinic in deepest Sussex, probably, that slightly wayward Williamson brain was completely removed. In its place was inserted a tiny electronic device, buzzing with a series of algorithms even niftier than the one used to calculate last summer's exam results

The new device (trademarked "Minister Maker") would provide Gavin's mouth with an auto-response to every educational issue. There was a Bluetooth connection to the outside world, enabling news updates and adjustments as and when needed. 

What could possibly go wrong? After all, an earlier more basic version had been implanted in Nick Gibb about 10 years previously, and that one seemed to have lasted quite well. It was time to try out a major upgrade on Gavin.

If successful, they could roll out the device across the rest of government. Only programmed to say things that maximise votes, "Cabinet Maker", in theory, would mean no more need for blundering human politician brains at all. Guaranteed electoral success forever more.

A stream of nonsensical phrases

Unfortunately, after a quiet start, the electronics inside Gavin plainly went calamitously and increasingly wrong during 2020. The vital Bluetooth connection with the outside world was lost completely, and Gavin was just left repeating a stream of nonsensical phrases: "The exam results are robust"; "Schools must stay open"; "Britain is better than the others"; "The private sector needs to catch up with teachers' pay"; "You're going to court if you do that", and so on. 

It is a measure of where we are now that several people found themselves almost believing my colleague's theory. After all, it would also explain that strangely unreal voice. As a fellow Yorkshireman, I have never heard a real person talk like Gavin, least of all in his native Scarborough. The voice flits from one end of the M1 to the other and back, rather in the manner of Dominic Cummings during lockdown.  

And if he is a real person still, I hope the secretary of state is concerned that such conspiracy theories are now developing. In fairness, he is probably a much nicer, brighter and better-intentioned person than we give him credit for. This has been a difficult, inevitably bleak time for him and for his colleagues at the DfE.  

But what has become so glaringly and alarmingly apparent this year is that he and the rest of the DfE repeatedly reveal very little understanding of what actually happens in schools. It has been a deteriorating state of affairs, culminating in that shockingly blinkered threat of court action. (Perhaps the algorithm deteriorated to such a point that "Schools must stay open" was the only voice left in his head?) 

It is not really the minister's brain that needs replacing. It is the whole moribund mechanism at work there, so obviously getting in the way of decent well-intentioned people doing a decent job - both at the DfE and in schools.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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