John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society.
After this week’s turbulence, with primary schools closing after one day back, a Teacher Tapp poll showing confidence in the government as low as one per cent, and the Prime Minister hoping for “a good wind in our sails” on vaccination, Gavin Williamson’s parliamentary performance yesterday was surprisingly confident and effective. GCSE and A levels would be replaced by teachers’ assessments, but this time carried out according to agreed criteria and properly moderated. Private candidates, who suffered grievously last year, would be protected by special arrangments. SAT tests for primary schools would be cancelled, and direct online teaching, wrecked in most schools by union action last year, would be maintained by Ofsted. Provision of laptops, and low-cost access to data, were being ramped up speedily, this time following proper tendering procedures, and children with no access to tech would be able to attend school. Questions were wide-ranging and challenging, but Labour’s Kate Green spent most of her speech welcoming what he had said.
So, that’s all right then. Or is it? A good afternoon in parliament, as Lord Haig would surely testify, does not always make an impact outside it, and the long-term damage of several major problems remains. University students are being charged large sums in rent and tuition fees for services that are not provided and accommodation that they are not allowed to use, an injustice that they will remember at the next election, and which the government has yet to tackle. Claudia Webbe, a former aide to Ken Livingstone and currently suspended from the Labour whip over an assault allegation, delivered a furious rant on the subject, and the eternal student in me was inclined to agree with much of it.
So did several MPs, and Williamson’s repeated reference to a £20 million hardship fund agreed before Christmas was his weakest answer of the afternoon. His continuous reference to testing in schools, when asked about vaccination for teachers, was not much better, though he hinted at “pushing at boundaries”, particularly in special schools, and noting the impending arrival of Matt Hancock, next up for questions. There is clearly a battle going on between the DfE and Department of Health over this issue, and one the DfE needs to win if schools are to reopen safely.
This had been the biggest source of embarrassment for the government in the early part of the week. The Prime Minister on Sunday, and the Secretary of State for Health on Monday, said that schools were safe and that teachers were not at greater risk than other people. On Tuesday morning the NAS-UWT union posted figures from Leeds, Birmingham, and Greenwich, showing that the rate of infection among teachers was up to four times the local average. Given the recent friction between two of these authorities and the DfE, it is almost unbelievable that the figures were not known to the government. If Ministers knew about them when they made those statements, they were knowingly making untrue statements with intent to deceive. The Prime Minister’s statement on Monday evening that schools could be vectors of infection acknowledged something that had been sickeningly obvious to headteachers for weeks, if not months.
Sir Michael Wilshaw, Michael Gove’s choice as chief inspector, said on Tuesday that Gavin Williamson had “got a lot wrong up to now”, and echoed the complaints of headteachers about lack of communication and consultation. He was particularly concerned at the impact on poor pupils from lack of access to technology and facilities for remote learning and suggested some kind of hubs be set up to facilitate this, though it is hard to see how this could be done without running the same risk of infection that they would meet in school. Sue Vermes, Head of Rosehill Primary School, Oxford, had initially received 17 laptops, for pupils who had a social worker, for her 218 pupils, of whom 135 were receiving free school meals. She was still 100 short of what was needed. Asked if she felt she had had good support from the DfE, she said there had been “a lack of understanding”, but that recent guidance had shown some improvement, and that her school “interacted with what the DfE say”.
Asked whether Gavin Williamson should resign, Sir Michael said he should take final accountability for what had gone on, but that Ministers “don’t tend to resign for the mistakes that they make now in the way that they did before”. He noted that we had had five Education Secretaries in the past nine years, including Michael Gove’s long tenure, and that the Prime Minister needed to make sure that the Department was led well, “by people who were prepared to stay there and work with headteachers and other leaders in education to make sure that it remains one of the most successful departments in government.” The same could be said of the Department of Health and Social Care.