Of all the own goals and missteps the Government has inflicted on itself during the pandemic, the exams fiasco was one of the most embarrassing.
Having taken the decision to cancel end-of-term examinations months before – and watched the Scottish Government run aground on the very same reef a couple of weeks before England was scheduled to do so – the Department for Education sailed blithely into disaster.
Gavin Williamson, having struck a tough pose against grade inflation, was swift to capitulate. With a second round of more-generous results anticipated in 2021, a decade of Conservative attempts to toughen up school standards risks becoming another victim of Covid-19.
And all of this followed a prolonged battle between the Government and the teaching unions about getting schools open in the first place, with the latter accused of setting deliberately impossible safety conditions on any return to work.
So one can see why the Education Secretary might feel he has something to prove, and thus why he has chosen to take an extremely muscular line against several London councils which had planned to close their schools early for Christmas in view of rising coronavirus cases. Williamson issued Greenwich with a ‘temporary continuity direction’, a new power afforded him by Covid-19 legislation, to force the local authority to reverse course.
Two more, Islington and Waltham Forest, had issued similar directives and likewise face a confrontation with the Government if they don’t back down.
Ministers followed up this move with the announcement that they will roll out mass rapid testing in secondary schools in the New Year, in what Williamson called a “milestone moment in our work to keep schools and colleges open for all”. However, the unions claim that schools have not been provided with adequate staff and training to make use of the tests.
Furthermore, if the tests are going to be rolled out in January it isn’t immediately obvious why allowing schools to break up for Christmas a week early would be such a disaster – the last week of term is seldom one in which many critical lessons are taken.
A couple of possible explanations present themselves. First, that the Government wants to avoid councils such as Greenwich setting a precedent for school closures that could come back to bite it in the event that the new testing regime and the vaccine rollout don’t bring the pandemic under control as quickly as hoped in 2021. Second, that Williamson has simply spied an opportunity to square off on favourable terms with the teaching unions and some Labour-led local authorities.