Boris Johnson in Devon, August 2020. Photo: Flickr/Pippa Fowles Boris Johnson in Devon, August 2020. Photo: Flickr/Pippa Fowles

Pressure from below has forced the Johnson government into crucial retreats on exam grades and face coverings, writes Sean Ledwith

Yesterday some media outlets were reporting a story that Boris Johnson is planning to step down as Prime Minister in six months. These rumours, regrettably, are unlikely to turn out to be true but they are an indication that all is not well in the upper echelons of the Tory Party. Johnson’s calamitous handling of the pandemic has led one Fleet Street pundit to describe him as Britain’s’ worst PM since Lord North-the man who lost the American colonies in the eighteenth century

Last refuge of a scoundrel

After days of drift and inactivity on the two big controversies in the education sector, Boris Johnson finally popped up yesterday to offer his expertise. Bizarrely, he actually had barely anything to say on either the meltdown of the secondary exam system or the issue of schools reopening during the pandemic.

Johnson apparently thinks the musical schedule of the Last Night of the Proms is a far weightier matter than either of the problems that have created sleepless nights for thousands of children and parents up and down the country.

Opportunistically weighing into the debate about whether singing Rule Britannia is acceptable anymore, Johnson promptly displayed his complete failure to comprehend how the Black Lives Matter campaign has hugely shifted public attitudes to colonialism and empire. The BBC has rightly decided in light of the renewed national debate on racism to broadcast an instrumental version of the song that deletes references to slaves and ruling the waves.

ohnson could not resist this opportunity to throw some red meat for the Mail and Express to predictably gobble up:

I cannot believe… that the BBC is saying that they will not sing the words of Land of Hope and Glory or Rule Britannia! as they traditionally do at the end of The Last Night of the Proms. I think it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions, and about our culture, and we stopped this general fight of self-recrimination and wetness.

We can only assume from this that Johnson thinks that questioning the vicious exploitation by the British Empire over centuries of large parts of Africa and Asia amounts to wetness. The demand from many educators at all levels for a decolonised curriculum that is more suitable for the post-George Floyd era will clearly receive little sympathy from this government.

This week’s U-turn

On the same day, Johnson’s government announced it was reversing months of advice that face coverings are unnecessary in schools. From next Monday onwards, schools in local lockdown areas are authorised to insist pupils and staff on corridors and in shared spaces wear masks. Not for the first time during the pandemic, the government is way behind the curve on developing policy.

The devolved administrations in Scotland and Northern Ireland have already facilitated a similar move and advised that it is to be universally implemented, not just the patchwork approach applying in England. By only requiring this measure in certain parts of the country, the government is once again sowing the seeds of confusion and doubt at a time when people are crying out for cast-iron certainty. Absurdly, the guidance in England also stipulates that the wearing of face coverings is at the discretion of headteachers. The NEU’s Kevin Courtney has highlighted the limitation of this aspect of the U-turn:

We welcome the steps now being taken, but it is a halfway house to pass the decision to head teachers. There has to be a science-led approach from the top.

Williamson’s non-sacking

Part of the reason there has been so much muddle and confusion regarding the protocols for reopening of schools is that, incredibly, Gavin Williamson remains in place as Education Secretary. Student protests last week forced the government to ditch the notorious algorithm that had downgraded thousands of mainly working-class children.

We can only assume that Johnson has not fired Williamson so that the former does not look like the most incompetent person in government. Apart from presiding over the virtual disintegration of GCSE and A Level assessment this year, Williamson also failed to ensure BTEC grades were available on time.


What parent can believe an assurance that their child is safe in school from the man who cannot even deliver a credible system of external assessments? Yesterday, the head of Ofqual, Sally Collier, was shamefully made to fall on her sword as a scapegoat for Williamson’s incompetence. In 2002, Labour’s Estelle Morris resigned as Education Secretary after an A-Level controversy that was mild compared to Williamson’s omnishambles.

In the wake of Cumming’s infamous s jaunt to Barnard Castle, it is becoming apparent that this is a government that is utterly devoid of any moral compass. Only sustained pressure from students, parents and educators can force it to do the right thing in the classroom.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters