After a turbulent two years, Gavin Williamson has been removed from his post as Secretary of State for Education. It is never easy to see someone removed from their post, but there was a sense of inevitability about this. Of course, he has faced challenges beyond the scope of most Government Ministers with responsibility for Education, but what might have been done better?
The key shortcomings from my perspective have surrounded the examination process, communication and preparation. The way in which results were determined in 2020 (and then blamed upon a 'mutant algorithm') caused great upset at schools across the country. The mistake was genuine, but it was the failure to take real responsibility that was worrying, and the impact that this had on students, their families, and university admissions was significant. The lack of communication with school leaders around key policy decisions (despite a number of consultations) left the department at odds with the teaching profession.
In the last 12 months, schools have had to struggle with a seeming failure to plan ahead. We were told that exams would go ahead, that schools would not close in January, and that there was no plan B. Almost inevitably, the only one of the three that was true was that there was no plan B. The system last year actually worked reasonably well, although it lacked some of the rigour of standardisation. Had the planning been in place from the start of the year, rather than being reactive to events, we could have had a system that provided greater fairness, and could have significantly reduced the volume of assessment that students had to undergo in April and May.
So what does the new Education Secretary face? Unfortunately, there appears to be no plan B in place yet, leaving teachers and students waiting to hear whether there will be any real changes to assessment next summer, although we do expect exams. Nadhim Zahawi has won a great deal of credibility through his leadership of the vaccination programme, and with vaccines being rolled out to the 12-15 age range, it is perhaps a good time for him to move into education! There is always a danger that Education, when led by politicians, will become too politicised, and that each new post-holder will want to make their mark, through change. With 12 Secretaries of State over the last 20 years, and 5 in the last 7 years, it has proved hard to develop long term strategy, and deliver meaningful and forward looking policy, that is well researched, and shown to be effective.
I wish Mr Zahawi the very best for his new role, and would encourage him to listen, communicate and plan for the long term, and if he can do that, it will benefit all of our children, our schools, and help the whole country as well.