It’s a relief to Tes that there’s no tarantula in Gavin Williamson’s office at the headquarters of the Department for Education in Westminster.
The creature was reportedly kept on his desk when he was chief whip. But it's now at home in his constituency in South Staffordshire, he says.
Nor does he have on display the sword which was once presented to him while he was minister of defence.
Williamson: No MAT boss should earn more than PM
Quick Read: Gavin Williamson appointed education secretary
“I’m a bit swordless,” he says. “I didn’t think it was the right thing to have at the DfE.”
His weapon, of course, is a £7.1 billion war chest in extra funding to transform schools over three years between 2020-21 and 2022-23 as announced in the spending review this week.
He’s proud to say it’s something he “fought tooth and nail for”, although he is gallant in acknowledging “the groundwork” of his predecessor Damian Hinds.
It’s more than any other government department has received in the review and “it’s an amazing opportunity”, he says.
On top of that, there’ll be a further £4.4 billion over the three years to cover the rising costs in teacher pension contributions which schools must cover, and the deal includes £700 million for special educational needs and £66 million for early years.
Life’s good. We’re drinking tea in comfy leather chairs in his large office. But Tes is preparing to do battle.
Why no money this year?
Why is there no money this year when unions have identified an immediate need, and say cash-strapped schools will be laying-off teachers and teaching assistants from this month?
“My first fiscal moment was the spending round dealing with 2020-21,” he says. “I’m afraid I didn’t have the ability to be education secretary a year ago.
“But I hope that by giving [financial] certainty for the future, schools are in the best possible position to manage their finances over this current year. I’m wanting headteachers to have a real sense of the money they are going to be getting and to have the confidence to be able to plan ahead.”
But will it really happen in these unchartered waters of British politics, with an election looming and a possible change of government? Could your time in office be the shortest ever for a secretary of state for education?
“I have every intention of my time being the longest,” he says with a smile.
You wonder whether he’s found his niche here at the DfE.
He seems settled into his office where family photos are strategically placed on tables and mantelpieces as he proudly shows off the view of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.
LGBT+ rights and the importance of EU nationals
And he also has a window into the world of education because his brother is a secondary school teacher, and his wife Joanne is a teaching assistant who used to be a primary school teacher.
“You see the amount of dedication and the amount of work they [teachers] do, and you see that it’s not just a job that happens in the classroom, but the constant preparation that goes on behind the scenes, and the many hours of thought and preparation,” Williamson says.
But can headteachers have confidence that he’ll back them in teaching the LGBT+ curriculum following his voting record against gay marriage (twice in 2013)?
“In the not too distant past I voted for it as well,” he says.
But what about his voting record against the rights of EU nationals to remain in the UK post-Brexit? And where does that leave the thousands of teachers in our schools who are EU nationals?
Before he comments, he wants to know the dates of the votes, and asks whether they took place when he was chief whip.
He points out that recent Conservative prime ministers have made it “abundantly clear” that EU nationals will be “incredibly welcome in terms of staying in this country”.
He says: “The important role that they play in our schools is something we value dearly."
Too much in-depth planning and recording
Tes asks why his wife left teaching, wondering whether having two children as well as an extremely busy and high-profile husband meant the workload was too much?
“I’m away an awful lot,” he says. “And there was always a big challenge in terms of workload, and this is one of the things we need to address [as a profession].
“How do we make sure we get the workload right so that people want to stay in the profession for as long as possible?
“When you look at some of the workload that has accumulated, what we do want to be doing is constantly asking the question: what does a teacher do that adds to the positive outcomes for that child? And how do we make sure that the teacher is focused on that, and not being distracted by other areas of work that aren’t delivering better educational outcomes?
“One of the things that is often highlighted to me is the depth of planning and recording, and how do you look at that in order to be able to get that balance right to make sure that enough information has been gathered so that teachers have a record of what they need while making sure it isn’t obsessive.”
'One thing my wife made clear...'
Does he ever ring his wife or brother for advice?
He takes advice from a great many people, he says, however his wife did make one thing “absolutely clear” when he took up office.
“My wife very clearly gave me instructions that there was to be no meddling with the national curriculum, and it was one of the things I made abundantly clear to all officials that this was something that we weren’t touching.
“I want teachers to be able to have the freedom to focus on their teaching, making sure they’re not thinking about the next change to the national curriculum that’s coming down the line.”
Westminster is a different world to the Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough, where Williamson grew up and attended a comprehensive school. But there should be no surprise that he has made it to where he has in his career, he says.
“What I find depressing is that people seem to think it’s unusual that someone who is education secretary went to a comprehensive school. To me is perfectly normal!”
Not surprisingly, he wants to make sure that every comprehensive pupil “has the opportunity to achieve the very best and absolutely get the very best out of their lives”.
'Inspired by my wife and brother'
So is he against grammar schools? Could the £200 million grammar school expansion fund be better spent elsewhere?
If ever there was a fence, he’s sitting on it.
“They [grammar schools] do an amazing job, but then I see schools across the country doing a wonderful job.”
But, in any case, it’s teachers that are “the single thing that makes the biggest impact on a child’s life at school”, he says.
“They are the ones that change and transform the system and that is why we’ve been fighting to get the extra funding and deliver it to them.
“We can all talk about so many different aspects of education but it is always the teacher. Brilliant teachers produce brilliant results and change children’s lives and I think that, having seen first hand with Joanne and my brother, and seeing the passion and commitment that they bring to the children in their care I think it’s really inspiring.
'Levelling up' teacher pay
Not surprisingly, he is against MAT bosses earning huge salaries, and wants to see as much money as possible going into the classroom and teacher development.
As part of the extra funding plans, the starting salary for teachers is set to rise by £6,000 to around £30,000.
But that means NQTs will be on more money than some teachers who’ve been in the job for a couple of years, won’t it?
“No because we’re levelling up the money that teachers will be paid,” he says.
Time is running out, and Williamson has to be at the Commons for a meeting or possibly a vote on Brexit, so Tes tries to squeeze in another question: does he think mobile phones should be banned in schools?
“I would always support any teacher or headteacher who wants to see mobile phones out of the classroom.”
There’s just time to show off a traditional spinning top, a gift he received from the Ministry of Defence in Malaysia.
“Tell your editor I’m hoping to keep the office for a long time,” he says.
But then seconds later reality sinks in as we shake hands.
“I really hope this isn’t our last interview”, he adds.