Is Gavin Williamson going to offer children a ‘superb’ education? I very much doubt it | Fiona Millar

At one point last week there was a rumour that the last education secretary, Damian Hinds, would stay in his job. This seems comical now.

In fact, it is ludicrous to think that the affable but low-energy Hinds could have survived the shock and awe of Boris Johnson’s arrival in Downing Street. Instead the new education secretary – the fourth since Michael Gove was pushed out for being too toxic (NB aided by the new PM’s backroom boy Dominic Cummings) – is the man sacked barely three months ago for allegedly leaking sensitive security information to the press.

True, Gavin Williamson is 100% state school educated, only the second education secretary to have attended a comprehensive school, and apparently a former school governor, so we should be heartened by that. As chief whip he was compared to a devious character from the political thriller House of Cards, yet his missteps as defence secretary got him the name Private Pike, from Dad’s Army.

He is a smooth operator and political chameleon, having moved seamlessly from David Cameron’s inner circle to Theresa May’s cabinet and now Boris Johnson’s court. His gut instincts on LGBT rights, for example, a pressing issue in the light of the Birmingham schools conflicts, are hard to fathom, given his mixed voting record.

He vigorously denied the leak claims against him, yet May felt he was not trustworthy enough to remain in government, which makes him a substandard role model to oversee a state education system where the development of character ranks alongside being well qualified. Let us not forget, too, that he is working for a man universally thought to be prone to lying, who described black children as “piccannies”, gay men as “bumboys” and Islamic women in burqas as “letterboxes”.

But it is too easy to get distracted by personalities. Shortly after the 2017 election I spoke at an event with a coalition government adviser who admitted that a deliberate strategy before the 2010 election was to ramp up policies such as free schools to distract attention from cuts elsewhere. We all fell into the trap and spent too long fulminating over a policy that turned out to be relatively inconsequential.

So, let’s start by getting straight to the point about the required priorities for this government. The new prime minister says he wants every parent to be guaranteed a “superb” education for their children. What does that mean?

Presumably Johnson views his own luxury schooling at Eton as superb. I would dearly love to be able to tell the children on my local housing estates that they could have access to those facilities and class sizes, but that isn’t going to happen by raising the minimum level of funding to £5,000 per pupil.

Successive governments have ignored the fact that we don’t really know how much money would guarantee a good enough – let alone superb – education for every child, remembering that many have very different needs. Patching in paltry sums to plug gaps at a time when costs are soaring is inadequate, and unlikely to stop schools closing early, parents being asked to donate funds, and subjects and teachers being axed.

Just as pressing is the teacher recruitment and retention crisis. Teachers are leaving in record numbers. And according to Ofsted’s latest research they don’t feel great about their lives either, blaming workload, accountability, behaviour, funding cuts, demanding parents and dramatic policy changes. The last three governments – step forward, in particular, Gove and Cummings – need to own that. But correcting this deep-rooted malaise and low esteem is a herculean task.

Both Johnson and Williamson give the impression of being intrigued by politics as a game, rather than a route to substantial social change. Indeed, Williamson’s very appointment felt like an afterthought and obligatory reward for a man who helped the PM win his party’s leadership.

There is an argument that Johnson will have that feelgood factor that now trumps policy wonkery when it comes to winning elections, but the repetitive use of words such as “optimism” and “energy” will only go so far.

I suspect that making parents, teachers and school leaders feel good again is beyond the reach of these two men. Even Theresa May made a better fist of a socially cohesive vision on the steps of Downing Street in 2016 – and that came to nothing. We should give all incoming ministers the benefit of the doubt, but doubt feels the operative word. I certainly have bucketloads of it.


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