Gavin Williamson came in for a roasting in a Question Time debate with one audience member branding him the “the worst education secretary we have ever had”.
Top Tory Mr Williamson was subjected to a barrage of criticism in his absence on the BBC show following plans for a so-called Free Speech champion at universities.
Labour and Liberal Democrat opponents rounded on the beleaguered Education Secretary in fiery exchanges.
Mr Williamson was widely criticised last year after overseeing a debacle with GCSE and A-level results, after thousands of pupils initially had results downgraded by an algorithm after exams were cancelled.
He then was forced to again close schools because of the Covid pandemic, and is under intense pressure to reopen them again from March 8.
During the BBC show on Thursday evening, one member of the public, James, said Mr Williamson was “universally the worst education secretary we have ever had” and the “biggest threat to education”.
Another told him to “step aside and let somebody else do the job properly.”
The debate was prompted after another member of the public asked if plans for free speech at university was a current priority given the ongoing pandemic.
A new “free speech champion” was recently announced, giving powers to the higher education regulator to sanction English universities and students’ unions for barring speakers or dismissing academics over contentious issues.
In a series of stinging comments which received applause from a number of the virtual audience James, from the public, said: “Free speech is important but the real issue at play here and the biggest threat to education is Gavin Williamson.
“He is universally the worst education secretary we have ever had and this is just another top line conservative with headline grabbing hot air.
“It’s unequivocally important that free speech is the issue, but the biggest threat to education is Gavin Williamson he needs to get out, stop grabbing big headlines and crack on with doing his job better.”
Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran said it shouldn’t be a priority and called it a “purposely divisive policy, a distraction to everyone”.
She went on to say that Gavin Williamson was “the most inept education secretary” we could ask for and called on him to apologise to students for having “failed in his inability to tackle this crisis”.
Labour MP Nadia Whittome said it was the government’s effort to “stoke a culture war” to distract from current issues, citing the virus death toll and mental health problems.
She said: “This is about distracting from the real issues… because of this government’s incompetence.”
Tory MP Mark Harper said free speech at university was an issue that needed fixing, citing examples of students discriminated for, or not feeling comfortable in, expressing their views.
He accepted it was not the top priority.
Asked to defend his fellow MP who had “had a bit of a kicking”, Mr Harper said the majority of his colleague’s time had been spent on plans to get children back to school ahead of March 8.
He added that there was “a huge amount of work” going on in the department to make that work.
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