How Covid crisis chaos has defined Gavin Williamson

Tes looks at the outgoing education secretary’s tumultuous tenure

John Roberts

Gavin Williamson leaves office with a legacy defined by the Covid crisis.

Gavin Williamson leaves Sanctuary Buildings as one of the most memorable but maligned education secretaries of recent times.

While controversial predecessors, such as Michael Gove, might have been more divisive figures in the sector, Williamson’s legacy is perhaps that he managed to unite the schools’ workforce, but not in the way he would have wanted.

Reshuffle: Williamson leaves education secretary post

Background: DfE accused of 'chaos, incompetence and confusion'

Opinion: DfE risks dark legacy over legal threats 

When he was appointed to the post in July 2019, he promised that education would be at the heart of government.

You could say he at least lived up to his word.

Throughout the pandemic, ministers have been keen to stress that education has been a national priority.

But, in reality, the crisis has left schools working through 18 months of chaos, disruption and U-turns, with Willliamson’s popularity and credibility taking a hit at every twist and turn.

No stranger to controversy

It is worth remembering that when he arrived in post, he was already no stranger to controversy or to losing a top role in government.

Having been the government’s chief whip under Theresa May, he was promoted to defence secretary in November 2017.

However, he was then sacked following a leak from the National Security Council. In a letter, Ms May said an investigation found “compelling evidence suggesting your responsibility for the unauthorised disclosure” – something he strenuously denied.

Williamson’s appointment at the Department for Education (DfE) made him the third education secretary from Yorkshire after Labour’s David Blunkett and the Conservative Party’s Justine Greening, and only the second to be educated at a comprehensive school after Greening.

In his first few months in office, he talked about the importance of further education and, in his first party conference speech in September 2019, he promised to give his all “to make technical and vocational education the first choice for anybody with the aptitude, desire and interest to pursue it”.

Covid crisis to define Williamson’s time in office

But his job was to be transformed by the Covid pandemic.

Schools were closed to most pupils as the country moved into lockdown in March 2020.

Ever since, Williamson and the government have seemed determined to avoid a repeat of that and to preserve as much normality as possible in schools.

Nonetheless, it has felt as if the department has lurched from crisis to crisis ever since.

The first major U-turn was the government’s failure to ensure primary pupils returned en masse to school before the summer of 2020.

And this was followed by an exams debacle from which Williamson’s reputation has arguably never recovered.

Algorithim ‘fiasco’

After GCSEs and A levels in 2020 were cancelled because of Covid, the plan was for students to receive results based on teacher-assessed grades moderated by an algorithm.

When A-level results landed, there was widespread public outrage over the extent to which student’s results had been downgraded and a mounting sense of unfairness over students failing exams they never had the chance to sit. 

Initially, Williamson insisted there would be no U-turn over the use of an algorithm to moderate teacher-assessed A-level grades, only to U-turn within 48 hours.

This meant GCSE students received unmoderated grades and A-level students got a new set of results.

His media interviews at the time suggested that he had only become aware of issues with the A-level grades on the weekend following the results release, but a Freedom of Information request from Tes revealed emails showing that his officials knew things were “not good”, two days before the weekend and four days before the eventual U-turn.

Despite the fallout from this, Williamson survived the exam season of 2020 and oversaw pupils’ return to education in September last year.

However, his troubles and those of schools, were far from being behind them.

Using legal threats

The government’s determination to keep schools open at all costs, despite mounting Covid cases, led to Williamson dismissing pleas to allow schools to move to rotas in hotspot areas.

This culminated in the frankly surreal events of December 2020, in which a London council asked its schools to move online because of rising Covid cases, only for Williamson to use emergency Coronavirus Act powers to give a legal order forcing them to keep their doors open in the final week of term.

At the time, Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, condemned this as bully-boy tactics and warned that there would be a “reckoning” for the department’s actions.

But, for schools, worse was to follow.

Not only did the government announce in late December its intention to turn schools into Covid testing sites in January but the plan for pupils to return in the New Year descended into farce.

With some classrooms due to reopen the next day, Boris Johnson took to national television to insist that schools were to open and that parents should send their children in.

But just a day later, he announced that schools were to close for a new national lockdown because of the rising number of Covid cases being driven by a new variant.

This announcement also triggered the next cycle of disruption as exams were cancelled without a plan to replace them.

However, it is not just the Covid chaos that has proved to be Williamson’s undoing.

A string of unconvincing public appearances have often served to put him even more in the firing line.

This year’s exam results did not result in the same level of controversy as 2020 but, when Williamson took to the airwaves, he managed to become the centre of attention by claiming he could not remember his own A-level results.

And earlier this month, with speculation mounting about his future, a profile interview he gave to the Evening Standard included the revelation that the education secretary had managed to confuse two black sportsmen: footballer Marcus Rashford and rugby union player Maro Itoje.

His policy priorities have also been questioned. A promised crackdown on behaviour issues and a potential ban on mobile phones were dismissed as “thin gruel” by Mr Barton.

But perhaps the biggest challenge for the education secretary throughout this crisis has been the sense that, in a pandemic, the decisions on schools have actually been taken by Downing Street.

In September 2020, Mr Barton suggested that the department actually wasn't pulling the strings now “that it might be that the real power shift has moved to No10.”

This was echoed in a recent report from the Institute for Government, which said that Williamson was not “directly involved” in any key meetings ahead of mass school closures last March.

 A running theme throughout these controversies has been the charge that the government has been too late and too slow to respond to the Covid crisis, meaning schools have been left navigating U-turns and last-minute announcements and guidance.

Williamson departs office with uncertainty over Covid likely to remain a part of school life for some time to come but school leaders and teachers will hope his successor can be more successful in responding to the sector’s needs and supporting it through the difficult days ahead.

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

John Roberts

John Roberts

John Roberts is North of England reporter for Tes

Find me on Twitter @JohnGRoberts

Latest stories

Coronavirus: Partial vaccination of ASN staff 'is putting pupils at risk'

Gillick competence: What schools need to know

You may not have heard of the ‘Gillick competence’ but it may well be used by pupils to accept or reject the Covid vaccine – here’s what schools should be aware of
Andrew Banks 23 Sep 2021
teacher cyber bullying

Are you a bystander to bullying?

Workplace bullying is often not just about those directly involved, but about those who are looking on, too, finds Grainne Hallahan
Grainne Hallahan 22 Sep 2021