Boris Johnson is an outstanding campaigner who has delivered an election near-landslide and Britain’s departure from the EU. Done “just like that”, as Tommy Cooper used to say – scarcely six months after the Conservatives won only five per cent of the vote in last year’s European elections and collapsed in the polls to under 20 per cent.
Some six months later, much has already been written about Government’s failure to deliver its aim of primary schools returning before the end of the summer term. Most of it clusters around variants on the question: how is that pubs are set to open before schools?
Nearly all of it has touched on consequences of closure: entrenched educational disadvantage; the superior position of the private sector; desocialised children; the problems of online learning; delayed exams, and more economic damage, since many parents with young children at home will feel that they can’t return to work.
Rather less has been asked about whether the Prime Minister is fully recovered from an illness that could have killed him less than two months ago. And, if he has, whether he is as well set up for governing as he undoubtedly is for referendum and election campaigns.
During January’s reshuffle, Number Ten briefed that the Cabinet was recast on three criteria: loyalty, not briefing against Johnson to the press, and competence. But it looks increasingly that Ministers were selected and the system set up not so much for competence as for compliance. This factor is at the heart of the schools debacle.
For the banana skin that has tripped the Government up was set not by Gavin Williamson, but by Johnson himself, who announced last month that he hoped all primary school children would be back by the end of this term. Some insiders claim Treasury pressure was the driving force. (It wants parents back at work.)
This immediately threw up a problem for the Education Secretary: how did this timetable for return square with his plans for classes, shaped by Public Health England? The Government’s guidance says that “for primary schools, classes should normally be split in half, with no more than 15 pupils per small group and one teacher)”.
Now it follows that if classes are split in half, extra room must be found for each one. Plus an extra teacher. In other words, it was never likely that, in the absence of more rooms or more teachers, all primary school pupils would be back in class as normal by the end of this term.
Especially given nervous parents and bolshie unions, which in the case of the National Education Union is ideologically opposed to the Government in any event. When we last wrote about school re-openings, the department was whistling to keep everyone’s spirits up – and hoping that the pupil drift back would become a flood.
In a narrow sense, Williamson seems to us to have played a hand full of twos and threes just about as well as he could have done. Without clear evidence of strong parental support, bashing the unions would have got him nowhere.
So he settled down to praising the teaching profession; pointing out correctly that children are harmed by a lack of schooling, and adding that vulnerable ones suffer most. The guidance restricted class sizes, limiting mixing between groups, and encouraged regular handwashing and frequent cleaning.
Meanwhile, some 20 local authorities told schools not to re-open and only 52 per cent of all eligible schools did so last week. Williamson was thus faced with a double whammy: first, almost half of those schools not open now; second, the prospect of halved class sizes still being there in the autumn when schools return.
In a wider sense, though, this conflict between Johnson’s lofty ambition and Williamson’s dogged performance shows up this Government’s governing problem. In essence, the Education Secretary was given his marching orders, and told to like them or lump them.
In a different kind of government, he would have had more autonomy. Seeing trouble coming down the road, he would have hammered on Downing Street’s door, making the kind of demands that David Blunkett, Labour’s best modern Education Secretary, and our columnist Robert Halfon have been making.
They want lights, action, music: in other words, summer schools, a volunteer army and a catch-up premium in Halfon’s case, marquees and temporary buildings in streets in Blunkett’s. These schemes may or may not be practicable during the summer.
Time is short – and, bluntly, education is less of a priority for the public as a whole than healthcare. “Save the NHS” was part of the Government’s original Coronavirus appeal; it has yet to give the same prominence to “Save our Schools” – or, better: “Save our Children”.
Politicised unions, hostile local authorities, nervous parents: all these help to explain why we now lag some of our neighbours in opening schools. Williamson should have made more waves with Number Ten. But Downing Street marks the cards of Ministers who operate in that way, and is overstretched in any event.
With his majority of 80 in the bag, Johnson is sitting pretty in Parliament. But ConservativeHome is picking up an ugly sense on the Tory backbenches, in which the school opening failure is all somehow mixed up with the NHS app problems and the Churchill statue defacement.
Very simply, the Government seems to be losing its grip on events. It’s true that success breeds silence: no-one much wants to write about the successful performance of Universal Credit during this crisis, for example. Whereas its enemies are poised to mark the Government down for every slip of its timetable.
Even so, it cannot afford to let things slip. So it is that Williamson was taken to task in the Commons yesterday. And a savvier political operation cross-government might have sorted problems earlier, such as quicker help for the most vulnerable children who don’t have access to computers.
The Government must prepare for the worst. It can’t simply assume that classes will return to their normal size by autumn. Insiders protest that there is no capacity for the extra class spaces needed, and that most of the teaching workforce is already teaching.
If the only practical solution becomes a sticking-plaster one – rotas – then the educational damage will continue. And many parents still won’t go back to work. The Education Secretary is in trouble. But he is only a symptom of the problem, which is: an ambitious centre and cowed Ministers.