No part of this government comes out of the Covid-19 pandemic well, and the staggering death toll is the tragic summation of a whole raft of failures. Probably the most expensive of these failures in terms of financial cost and, more importantly, human life, is ‘Test and Trace’ on which the Department of Health has spent an eye-watering £22 billion with its mates and favourites.
We should all be concerned at the absence of due process in awarding lucrative tenders, many of which have been given to people with little relevant experience but close connections to the Conservative Party. All governments make mistakes, but I cannot remember a period when one was so tainted by the lingering stench of corruption. If the charges brought by the Good Law Project are only half true, it would still represent a shocking deterioration in the standards of public life.
The prize for straightforward, old-fashioned, serial incompetence, however, has to go the Department for Education (DfE), which has managed to find itself wrong-footed at every turn. Whether dealing with examinations, free school meals or school closures, DfE has regularly taken the wrong decision, defended it when it was clear to every rational observer that the stance was untenable, and then made a U-turn too late for school and college leaders to plan for the change. It is deeply ironic that the department that promotes learning should seem incapable of practising it.
Much of the blame for this catalogue of errors must attach to the Secretary of State, Gavin Williamson, whose performance has caused even sympathetic commentators to despair. The Spectator for example has called him “the least convincing education secretary ever”. A damning leader in The Times referred to him as “by far the worst performer in an underpowered cabinet” and accused him of regularly following where others had led. Opposition to his decisions on school closures this December provoked an unprecedented degree of unity between headteachers, trades unions and local authorities as well as most education commentators.
A clue as to why Williamson has done so badly may lie in one of his favourite photographs: sitting at his desk with a whip prominently placed upon it – one hopes as a reminder of his previous role as Chief Whip rather than any more exotic fetish. He seems simply not to understand that (rather than just imposing discipline) an effective minister must negotiate an accommodation between the political ambitions of government and the operational necessities of their department. Governing is much more complex than deciding in cabinet what you would like to see happen and then merely ‘cracking the whip’.
Acting like a whip rather than a minister, however, is exactly what Williamson did in relation to Greenwich, threatening to take the council to court for seeking to close its schools in the week before Christmas. He showed the same approach in relation to the availability of on-line learning for those pupils unable to attend school, taking powers to require schools to make such provision, rather than providing the resources needed to make it happen. A more recent example is his message to parents that they should complain to Ofsted if they feel that the on-line curriculum offered is not satisfactory.
It is tempting to think that the removal of this most inept of ministers would make for better decision making in DfE. While it is probably the case that any replacement would improve matters, the problems of the department seem to go deeper. They have their roots in an over-centralised approach to policy-making that is shared across Whitehall but is particularly problematic in education. They also reflect an adversarial approach to educational institutions and the staff who work in them.
Typical of the top-down approach to managing the education system was the short-lived decision to order school closures in most London boroughs from January but force those in a number of adjacent areas to stay open despite the close interconnections between them. It seems amazing that the decision was taken without consulting the Mayor of London, the local authorities or headteachers, but perhaps not quite so amazing to a department that has a policy of forcing all schools to become academies whether the school, the parents or the local authority want to or not.
Similarly, the stubbornness with which ministers defended the patently unfair allocation of A level grades awarded by the Ofqual algorithm seems hard to fathom. Williamson was insisting that there would be no change as late as 15 August before the inevitable U-turn on 17August. It makes more sense, however, in the light of the fact that Whitehall now seeks to make decisions on almost everything in relation to schools from the allocation of funding to the best way to teach reading.
The attitude of the successive ministers to professionals who work in and with education is perhaps epitomised by Michael Gove’s repeated reference to ‘the Blob’, the supposed coalition of left wing academics, bureaucrats and trades unions who he saw as constantly opposing his reforms. Failing to engage with those who make the system work day by day increases the likelihood of errors. Failing to do so when a pandemic requires rapid and flexible reactions almost guarantees them.
The management of education in England needs to change from one where decision-making is increasingly centralised and remote to one which engages the skills and knowledge of both professionals and local communities. The DfE should learn to listen before laying down the law.
Removing the woeful Williamson would be a good first step; but it should be the beginning, not the end of the journey.