For some time now, Gavin Williamson has seemed to be almost immune to the consequences of his actions. That luck ran out when the recent cabinet reshuffle saw him removed from his post as Education Secretary. Williamson only became an MP in 2010, but his relatively short career has been an eventful one. He rose quickly through the ranks of the Conservative party, becoming Chief Whip and then Defence Secretary in 2017, a post from which he was fired two years later, accused of being the source of a Government leak.
His time as Education Secretary was similarly marred by scandal. Certainly, the Covid-19 crisis meant that Williamson was subject to a higher level of scrutiny than might usually have been the case. Covid-19 caused unprecedented upheaval in education: nationwide homeschooling, a radical restructuring of the exam process, student rent strikes up and down the country, and a university sector stretched to the limits by a massive rise in successful applicants.
Most notably, Williamson was heavily criticised last year after the algorithm he had put in place to moderate teacher-assessed A-Level and GCSE grades disproportionately downgraded students from state schools, particularly those from disadvantaged areas.
In the immediate aftermath, it seemed, at least for a little while, that Williamson’s career was soon to be over. There were days of protests over the outcome of his grading system, calling for just about everything short of his head on a pike. Perhaps it was due to his eventual U-turn that his career just about survived.
To his credit, there was no such algorithm this year. Though he was again criticised for the sharp disparities in attainment between private and state school pupils (70% of private school pupils achieved an A or an A* this year, compared to just 39% of state school pupils), the reaction has been far more muted. Nevertheless, grades have risen across the board, once again leaving universities scrambling to accommodate soaring numbers of students meeting their entry conditions.
During his short tenure, Williamson focused much of his rhetoric on the university sector, urging a return to face-to-face lectures this autumn and, perhaps to avoid being defined solely by his reactions to the Covid-19 pandemic, advocating strongly for free speech on campus. Williamson has been a key proponent of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill. This would introduce, among other things, a “free speech champion” to monitor whether universities and student unions are properly protecting free speech. It would also provide legal recourse for speakers to seek compensation for any potential loss they might incur if they are no-platformed.
Mr Williamson’s position has been unpopular with student groups and university bodies alike, with the general secretary of the University and College Union calling it a “threat to freedom of speech” based on an “over-exaggeration of issues”. The validity of his argument notwithstanding, by wading headfirst into the so-called ‘culture war’ in such a fashion, Mr Williamson presumably intended to shore up much-needed support among the more ideological factions of his party, and, indeed, of the Conservative base.
Despite this, the damage caused to his reputation by successive problems with predicted grades, and the crisis in university admissions which they have provoked, clearly proved to be too much. With schools in England already back, universities soon to follow, and rising Covid-19 cases all over the country, the next few weeks will be critical for this Government. In such a situation, the Education Secretary must be someone the public trusts, with clear messaging and a clear plan. Arguably, Gavin Williamson lost that trust last year and he could never quite hope to regain it. It remains to be seen if his replacement, Nadhim Zahawi, can do better, but for many, Williamson’s credibility was so badly damaged that his dismissal was nothing short of inevitable.
Illustration: Victoria Cheng