Reporter’s take: What will Williamson do for schools?

The former defence secretary is a very different politician to Damian Hinds. Martin George considers the implications for teachers

Gavin Williamson: What will he be like as education secretary? (Photo: Chris McAndrew, Parliament)

What kind of education secretary will Gavin Williamson be?

Just three words to his local newspaper caused consternation among many teachers after his appointment. His priority, he said, was to “drive up standards”.

To them, it sounded like an ominous return to political crusades of the past, which put them on the wrong side of a dividing line that sought to put politicians in parents' corner.


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For teachers, that meant decades of high-stakes accountability, with the ensuing obsession with data that has helped drive many out of the profession.

Under Justine Greening and Damian Hinds, the DfE had been moving away from this approach, as the deepening recruitment and retention crisis made winning over the profession a more urgent priority than winning over parents.

Mr Williamson’s two immediate predecessors had been accused by some on the right of being victims of “producer capture”: putting the interests of the "producers" (teachers) over the interests of the "consumers" (parents).

Another hint that the new education secretary may be wary of this perceived failing is his reported enthusiasm for free schools as one of his "three Fs", along with funding and further education.

Free schools were originally intended to be a disruptive force, giving parents the power to shake up the status quo, and it is notable that Nick Gibb, who remains school standards minister, has said that returning free schools to their original model should be an education priority for the new prime minister.

Michael Gove once reportedly predicted that a future Conservative Party leadership campaign would be fought between Damian Hinds and Gavin Williamson.

The contrast between their overlapping periods as defence and education secretaries could be instructive.

At defence, Mr Williamson campaigned publicly and successfully for increased funding for the armed forces, and chased Daily Mail headlines with stories that would find favour with more traditionalist Tory members.

At education, Mr Hinds kept the fight for school funding largely behind the scenes – with less success – and, in the words of one of his advisers on the day he was sacked, was a “good man who really cared about doing the right thing not the quick headline”.

All of which would suggest that Mr Williamson might be more successful at fighting the DfE's corner, but will be less teacher-friendly, and more inclined to soundbite friendly gimmicks such as the times tables check.

But there is a "but".

There is no doubt that Mr Williamson is a politician’s politician, and a highly ambitious one at that. And he knows that if he ever wants to climb higher in government he needs to rebuild his reputation.

It is only three months since he was sacked after an inquiry into the leak of information from the National Security Council found “compelling evidence” suggesting he was responsible.

Mr Williamson strenuously denies the allegation. However, the damage was done, and now his rapid return to the cabinet gives him a chance for redemption.

Will he calculate that a period where he can avoid controversy and demonstrate solid competence is a better way of achieving this than appealing to the Tory base at the risk of antagonising teachers?

And there is another "but": Mr Williamson does have some experience of the reality lived by schools and teachers.

He is a former school governor, and he specialised in education during his time as a North Yorkshire county councillor, and his wife is a former primary school teacher.

It may be that this grounding in education, together with the need to rebuild his reputation, counters the populist instincts of the new face at the DfE.

(Photo: Chris McAndrew, Parliament, Licence)

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