Since 1900, 44 men and nine women have had charge of English education. They included one duke, two marquesses, two earls, two viscounts and three hereditary baronets. Eight were old Etonians; four were old Harrovians; 10 went to state schools but only two, including Gavin Williamson, the present incumbent, to comprehensives. Only four had ever been schoolteachers; about twice as many were barristers. One (you know who) went on to be prime minister.
Until recently, the job – not considered one of the great offices of state – rarely interested politicians of stature. Winston Churchill turned it down in 1905 because it involved “smacking children’s bottoms and blowing their noses”. It was a position mainly for has-beens, never-weres and political climbers who couldn’t wait to move on to something else. Another Tory education minister, Edward Wood (later the 3rd Viscount Halifax), was equally dismissive of education: state schools, he said, should train children up “to be servants and butlers”. Civil servants complained it was hard to discuss anything with him because he spent so much time hunting.
Is Williamson worse? Or worse than another Tory predecessor, John Patten (1992-4), who called Birmingham’s then chief education officer, Tim Brighouse, “a nutter” and a “madman”, was sued for libel and had to pay substantial damages? Worse than Sir Keith Joseph (1981-6), who made it all too plain that he didn’t like the idea of state schools and once said “I wish we’d taken a different route in 1870”? Is Williamson worse, indeed, than any of his predecessors?
Many think so. “What could have been in the prime minister’s mind,” tweeted Nicholas Soames, Churchill’s grandson and a former Tory minister, “… to appoint so mere, so unreliable, so wholly unsuitable a man?”
All were referring to this summer’s A-level grading debacle. With exams cancelled because of Covid, Williamson decided that grades would be decided by a combination of teacher assessments and a mysterious algorithm that would correct for teachers’ over-optimism and generosity. When 40% of assessments were downgraded, some drastically, an outcry ensued, in particular because disadvantaged pupils were most commonly the losers. Williamson insisted there would be “no U-turn”. Two days later, he announced the re-instatement of the original teachers’ assessments, for GCSEs as well as A-levels, pleasing students and teachers but throwing universities, which had already filled many of their places, into crisis.
It was A-level grading that also did for a Labour education secretary, Estelle Morris (2001-2), who had been popular and had seemed well qualified for the job. Not only had she taught for 18 years in a comprehensive, she had spent four years in more junior positions at the education department. Alas, she became embroiled in a complicated row over how 2,000 pupils were awarded the wrong grades. On that occasion, the losers were mostly pupils in fee-charging schools and the posher state schools. She resigned, saying she had not been “as effective as I should be” and wasn’t good “at strategic management of a huge department”. So her own account suggests she has a claim to be the worst education minister in history, but it’s probably fairer to say she was just the most self-critical.
Either way, Williamson has more than A-level grades to his discredit. When schools closed in March, critics say, he failed to give them clear guidance on how to organise online teaching or cope with pupils whose homes lacked the necessary technology. Having told schools to re-admit some year groups in June while limiting class sizes to ensure social distancing, he failed to explain how they should do it. Now he insists that next year’s exams will go ahead as normal in England, albeit three weeks late (while in Wales they will not). So low is teachers’ trust in his competence and reliability, that nobody is confident they will.
Williamson can plead that only one of his predecessors had anything like a pandemic to deal with. That was Herbert Fisher, president of the board of education (equivalent of today’s education secretary) for nearly six years from 1916. The Spanish flu pandemic raged in 1918-19 but, Fisher told the Commons, he had “not thought it necessary to issue any general advice” about closing schools. Nobody accused him of idleness or neglect. State education was then almost entirely a responsibility for local councils. Most secondary schools were run by churches or private foundations. Only when ministers accrued more power were they blamed for things going wrong.
Over the past few months, Williamson may have wrecked the education and prospects of a generation of children. Sadly, there are many examples of ministers who can be accused of that. Lord Eustace Percy (1924-9) opposed raising the school-leaving age from 14 to 15, in effect delaying it until 1947. Florence Horsbrugh (1951-4) imposed spending cuts just as the post-war baby boomers started school, and did everything possible to prevent local authorities opening comprehensives. Mark Carlisle (1979-81) cancelled plans for GCSEs, at a time when teachers were almost unanimously in favour. All three were Tories, but the rejection of widely acclaimed proposals for A-level reform by Labour’s Ruth Kelly (2004-6) left in place a narrowly academic and specialised 16-18 curriculum that still, in the view of many critics, damages young people’s prospects.
Labour’s David Blunkett (1997-2001), with his schemes for improved reading and numeracy, mostly did a good job for children but a calamitous one for adult learners. His individual learning accounts, intended to give poorly qualified adults modest sums to improve their skills, had to be wound up after fraudsters pocketed at least £97m of the £290m spent. Some business schools still use it as a case study in failure.
The Tories’ Michael Gove (2010-14) handed over most secondary schools to academy chains, reconstructed the national curriculum and restored traditional written exams. In so doing, he demoralised teachers and angered parents to such an extent that his then close friend, the prime minister David Cameron, felt impelled to remove him.
So Williamson has stiff competition for the “worst ever” title. Given time, he could yet improve his rating. “As education secretary, I will stand for the forgotten 50%,” he said in July, promising to put further and technical education, for students who don’t go to university and who express “talent and genius … by the hand and by the eye”, at “the heart of our post-16 education system”.
If he pulled that off, he could secure a place among the greatest education ministers. But does he deserve that chance?