You would have thought that schools would have been fairly high up the list of the government’s priorities when lockdown was introduced back in March. That having millions of children stuck at home, reliant on online lessons and parental supervision to keep up with their schoolwork, might have raised a red flag or two at the Department for Education.
Instead, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, and his team of ministers chose to take the lockdown as an extended furlough period. Only, unlike many others in the country, he was still on full pay as he caught up with old episodes of Pointless. So he was taken completely by surprise when the first few year groups returned to class at the beginning of June only to find that most schools were unable to comply with social distancing rules without turning large numbers of children away. Gav had had one job and he had blown it. But then, like most members of Boris Johnson’s cabinet, he was chosen for his inability rather than his ability.
At some point most education secretaries invariably end up sounding like headteachers. Not Williamson. He is firmly stuck at the level of a sixth-former who is hopelessly out of his depth. Nothing he says comes with any real conviction or sense of purpose. He’s even lost the elan he once had of twice winning fireplace salesman of the year in 2006 and 2008. Now all he can aspire to is the dull monotone of the supply teacher praying for the class to end. Just shut up and go away.
Having been told to go away and come up with a plan for getting all children back in school by September, Gav turned up in the Commons to deliver his homework in the form of a ministerial statement. I have a plan, droned Williamson. It is my plan. A plan by G Williamson (junior prefect). And his plan for getting all children back to school in September was to announce that all children would be going back to school in September. It was such a brilliant plan, he couldn’t think why no one had thought of anything like it before.
Here was the deal. Schools were basically going to have to pretend the pandemic was as good as over, that all the vulnerable staff and children had dematerialised, and it was up to headteachers to make the system work as well as possible. Sure, there would be a few home-testing kits available, children would be kept in bubbles that would all burst come the first breaktime, and if possible everyone should walk to school, making sure no one arrived at exactly the same time. So the school day would now be staggered over a 25-hour period. And to prove he was serious, parents whose children didn’t turn up to school would be fined.
In her first outing since replacing Rebecca Long-Bailey as shadow education secretary, Kate Green didn’t want to be the one to break it to Gav that it might have been a good idea to have more of a backup plan in case there is a second spike and further lockdowns are imposed, rather than just rely on a Panglossian “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds” approach. After all, Labour are just as keen for children to go back to schools, given the growing educational inequalities that have been exposed over the past few months, so maybe it was as well to pretend that everything could revert to normal by placing a few hula-hoops on the floor.
Instead, Green – as did many others – restricted herself to asking specific questions about consultation with staff, special educational needs, laptops for pupils on free school meals, bridging the attainment gap and ensuring a full curriculum that includes the arts, humanities and sports. Gav assured everyone that he was no longer asleep at the wheel and that all these things were at the very top of his inbox.
At times like these, it was far better to pretend that everything was going to work just fine rather than concentrate on the details. The government wanted a good news story and this was about as close to one on schools as it was going to get. Gav’s saving grace is that he doesn’t realise quite how boring and incompetent he is. So when he sees MPs on all sides of the chamber nodding off, he takes the silence as a victory for his powers of persuasion.
As if sensing that the Commons appearance had been vague and underwhelming, Boris Johnson sent Gav out to reprise his statement in the first Downing Street press conference for a couple of weeks. The only problem being that Williamson was just as vague and underwhelming the second time round. His plan to get all children back in school in September was still to get all children back in school in September. It was that cunning.
Gav did find himself on the end of some rather trickier questions from the media than he had from MPs. How could he guarantee a world-class education when he wasn’t even sure how the system was going to work and large numbers of children still had no laptops for online learning? How come he hadn’t been able to come up with a better plan in four months? Wasn’t he ashamed that the pubs were opening quicker than many schools?
At which point he began to get visibly tetchy. People should be getting behind his back-of-a-fag-packet plan rather than picking holes in it. Children were going back to school regardless. And if a few of them caught the coronavirus and passed it on to each other or family members, it was a price worth paying. Besides, there was going to be no need for more national lockdowns because … because he said so. So that’s all right then.