Gavin Williamson is maintaining his record as the worst Education Secretary in living memory, writes Sean Ledwith
The Tories had no sooner launched their supposed schools’ Covid recovery plan yesterday than it spectacularly imploded with the resignation of Sir Kevan Collins as ‘catch-up tsar’. Collins rightly denounced the derisory amount that Williamson and the Treasury have set aside for the government’s attempt to compensate the country’s children for lost learning during over a year of lockdowns.
Williamson announced that £1.4 billion would be invested over three years but was promptly criticised by multiple analysts including the Education Policy Institute which has calculated that £13.5 billion would be a more appropriate sum for the gargantuan scale of the task at hand. In his resignation letter to the PM, Collins stated:
“A half-hearted approach risks failing hundreds of thousands of pupils. The support announced by government so far does not come close to meeting the scale of the challenge and is why I have no option but to resign from my post. When we met last week, I told you that I do not believe it will be possible to deliver a successful recovery without significantly greater support than the government has to date indicated it intends to provide.”
There can be no more damning indictment of the inadequacy of Tory education policy than the resignation of the man tasked with spearheading its recovery from the disastrous impact of the pandemic. Collins had called for the funding of 100 hours of extra teaching per pupil, particularly in the areas of sport, music and the arts as part of a prioritising of children’s mental health.
The amount proposed by Williamson instead amounts to a risible £50 per pupil per year. The whole Tory approach to this debate is underpinned by a typically crass and quantitative mentality that perceives extra time in the classroom as the only conceivable way of rectifying the damage inflicted by the lockdowns.
Williamson is still speculating on the possibility of either adding an extra half an hour on the school day or taking it off lunchtimes. He is clearly oblivious to the reality that many children and staff are horrified at the prospect of extending even further the conveyor-belt of monitoring, testing and examinations that characterise the neoliberal regime that prevails in our schools and colleges.
It is difficult to think of a worse idea for teachers’ morale after a year of being pilloried by a hostile government and media than making them spend longer at work. Williamson and his acolytes at the DFE are incapable of comprehending that what staff really need is a focus on the qualitative side of the profession with investment in smaller classes, improved building and facilities, and more time for lesson preparation. The entire foundation of our education system needs to be re-conceptualised with less formal assessment at all ages and greater consideration in the curriculum of physical and emotional wellbeing, and enhanced ecological and political awareness.
After a year of enduring a global catastrophe, children also need a break from the relentless pressure of the Tory obsession with classroom targets and tests. If Williamson’s back-of-fag-packet plan of lengthening the school day goes ahead it is likely to exacerbate both the crisis in teacher retention and the one regarding children’s mental health.
Geoff Barton from the Association of School and College Leaders is another voice attacking the government for provoking the resignation of their recovery tsar:
“We are sad but not surprised that Sir Kevan Collins is standing down. We know that Sir Kevan had much bolder and broader plans but that these required substantially more investment than the government was willing to provide. He's tried his hardest on behalf of children and young people, but, in the final analysis, the political will just wasn't there to support him.”
If Williamson had a moral compass he would follow Colins’ resignation with his own. This is the Education Secretary who inflicted the calamitous algorithm on last year GCSE and A- Level cohorts, ignored Sage’s advice of a circuit-breaker lockdown in schools last autumn and then, most disastrously, reopened classrooms for one day in January, thereby feeding the second wave of the pandemic.
No single person has damaged the UK’s educational provision in such a short space of time as Williamson. Presumably the only thing that can be sparing him from the ministerial chop is that his boss in Number 10 needs a human shield from the wrath of voters.
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