How will history judge Gavin Williamson?

If you look at how the education secretary portrays his tenure, you might think it a success, says Yvonne Williams

Yvonne Williams

Covid and schools: How will history judge Gavin Williamson?

It is quite astonishing, when one thinks about it, the number of radical changes that education has gone through over this past year, and the incredible ways in which the education community has adapted to challenging conditions in the face of every adversity.

And all this has happened during the tenure of one secretary of state for education: Gavin Williamson. Is it possible that he will go down in history as the most successful education secretary ever? 

On his watch, pedagogy has gone online and snow days have been well and truly abolished. Never again will a single school day be missed. Out of the most tragic necessity, continuity of education provision has been born. 

When it became obvious that 1.78 million children were on the wrong side of the digital divide, the government was quick to offer – and slow to deliver – devices. Until, that is, it restricted access to the laptop scheme, allowing schools to claim only 20 per cent in October. 

The slow delivery prompted schools to use their entire stocks of devices, thus ensuring that education technology wasn’t stockpiled. If you simply look at the fact that 1.3 million laptops are now supposed to be in the hands of children who need them, and that parents can now claim assistance with internet access, then it all looks pretty successful.

Now some academy chains are using their surpluses to provide laptops for every child, and donations are being encouraged. In this way, the system is encouraged to be more self-sufficient.

Gavin Williamson: Widening the remit of schools

Without the benefit of costly and time-consuming professional development, teachers launched their classrooms into cyberspace with more than some degree of success. Learning on the job was the key strategy here: sink or swim.

There may not have been 100 per cent takers for the dip into virtual teaching the first time around, but, thanks to the vocal complaints of prominent politicians, and an announcement from Mr Williamson, there was universal uptake by January.  

And, just to make sure that lessons reached a satisfactory standard, Gavin Williamson was able to unleash a new inspection force of parents. From the comfort of their own homes, these quasi-inspectors were able to do a more thorough job than Ofsted.

The inspectorate has limited person-power, so can only undertake a limited number of inspections each year. But hand it over to a different stakeholder with a more personal interest in consistently high standards of provision, and the result is more widespread and in-depth surveillance, beyond the wildest dreams even of Sir Michael Wilshaw. 

During Mr Williamson’s tenure, the remit of schools has continued to widen, as heads and teachers have provided food and clothing to those most desperately in need. Stepping out of local community provision and leaving the work to the profession that knows the families best has been very successful – not to mention cheaper on the public purse, as some schools also run food banks. 

Track and trace in the early days of the pandemic failed to live up to the population’s expectations. But hand over responsibility to schools, and there is an efficient response. 

Senior leaders work well into their holidays and weekends to ensure that contacts of those who have been diagnosed with Covid are notified and recorded. And they have now organised mini testing stations to check whether pupils and staff are likely to transmit the virus in school. 

It just goes to show how much easier it is to ensure continuity of service from those in vocational salaried roles than from people contracted to work limited hours.

Covid and schools: The reorganisation of the exams system

The reorganisation of examinations has been quite a turbulent ride, but for two years in a row the education secretary has experimented with new systems

It could be argued that teachers had been all in favour of running the show, given their criticism of the existing set of exams. Now Gavin Williamson has delivered them the opportunity. 

By maintaining silence about the structure and format that the replacement assessment will take, and delivering the guidance at the 11th hour, just as the Easter break began, he has ensured swift action. The result is that many schools will run assessments that are based on old questions, thus saving money for the exam boards. 

By allowing schools to take charge of the exams timetable, senior leaders can adapt timings to local conditions – something that a national timetable can never do.

It seems incredible that Mr Williamson has been in office for less than two years, yet has overseen – or overlooked – almost two years of radical change to bring education into the 2020s.

To be fair, Gavin Williamson has had the advantage of decades of anti-union industrial relations legislation and academisation behind him. This has vastly reduced the power of the unions to take collective action, such as strikes, to counter unreasonable demands from the top. And recruitment is healthy, thanks to the pandemic. 

Still, education from 2020-21 has evolved faster than in any other period in recent history. During that period all that we know about effective leadership has been turned on its head. 

As things turn out, old-fashioned contingency planning and detailed strategy are so very last decade and trumped every time by a more laissez-faire approach. 

If you release the guidance at the most strategic point possible (just before a weekend or holiday), overworked professionals haven’t the energy to mount any serious resistance. 

Threatening legal action to keep schools open even when the evidence is that this could enable the virus to spread out of control shows how teachers can be supported to stay in the classroom in any circumstances. Who can afford to mount legal challenges and cover the costs if the court decides against them?

It has to be admitted that the indecisions and U-turns of the past year have made the profession more resourceful, more adaptable and more independent. 

To top it all, by linguistic prestidigitation, Gavin Williamson has managed to convey his gratitude to the profession without having to reward them financially. Who else could turn a pay freeze (or real-terms pay cut) into a pay pause that will save the government millions?

Truly, his has been a transformative period in office – future historians will surely be left marvelling at how grateful the teaching profession of 2020-21 must have been.

Yvonne Williams has spent nearly 34 years in the classroom, and 22 years as a head of English. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School, edited by Debbie Hickman (Routledge) 

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