Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, is one of the Tiggers of Tory politics: upbeat, a bit heedless and powered by large reserves of self-belief, whatever the external perceptions of his suitability for the job.
Even loyalist tranches of the Tory party are now asking how many wrong calls the Education Secretary can make without finding himself summarily moved out of top stream at the ambitious but accident-prone Johnson Academy. A comment by Allegra Stratton, the Prime Minister’s new spokesman in a lobby briefing that Williamson is doing a complex job ”to the best of his ability,” was either comically clumsy or cruelly on point.
It is exactly Williamson’s ability that is the subject of a lot of rude graffiti on the walls of the Tory edifice. The solution, he has discovered, is to hand the problem to someone else and claim credit for the transition.
Having placed too much emphasis on the return of schools as a priority – to the point of launching putative legal action against a London council which resisted so doing, he needed a swift 180-degree turn – and chose a deliberative, panic-avoiding style, bordering on languid.
With only months to go on GCSEs and A-level timetables, Williamson was also at pains to avoid a repeat of the fiascos over a badly-set algorithm for the 16-plus exams last year. So he struck out for the safest difference-splitting option – teacher-assessed grades, to be regulated with some degree of external guidance and possibly, the input of retired teachers.
“We will trust teachers, not algorithms,” was the new and startling battle cry – for never was an Education Secretary less likely to sound like a Guardian editorial than Gavin. Let’s see how that pans out. Rarely has there been a phrase less reassuring to the anxious class of teenage parents than “alternative arrangements will be made”. But the political tone is markedly less confrontational than it was.
Williamson was also confronting another looming issue eating away at the Government’s credentials on “levelling-up” left-behind parts of the country. Tory backbenchers fret that the “digital divide” which causes pupils in poorer households to lag behind those with access to fast wifi and multiple devices, is the new iteration of the free school meals argument.
In truth, the pandemic has already proved how far schools in England – as well as Scotland and Wales (even though their education systems are separate), are lagging n the rich-world race to make education technology effective and widespread when bricks-and-mortar education cannot be delivered or needs to be supplemented.
In 2019, the then education secretary Damian Hinds put his name to a strategy paper on making digital learning more easily and equitable to access. Yet there is little sign that any of the main ministerial appointments at the Department of Education were tasked with bringing it to life the pledge to “realise the potential of technology in education in the 21st century”.
Since then there has been no large-scale assessment of the various strengths and gaps of ed-tech providers – nor of the experience of teacher and pupils users. So while Williamson is absolutely right to hand out laptops and tablets, how teachers and pupils use them is still erratic and ill-guided.
The BBC’s new offer of CBBC on-screen education, particularly for younger children and re-marketting GCSE revision courses are an emergency solution for a fast-mutating virus so some degree of erratic provision is inevitable. But we have had several years of promises that public broadcasters, streaming services and technology companies can bring more joined-up results, When the crisis came, the result has been an ungainly scramble.
Another year of messy qualifications means stress for those involved and as the new chief regulator at Ofqual concedes today, the withdrawal of testing in a test-centred system runs the risk of demotivating pupils unless a rigorous process replaces it.
But the graver warning is that the chance to make a better fist of technology in education has been missed and that this has happened because it is no one’s job, in the No 10 policy world nor in the Department with Education to make it a more integrated part of the way we teach and learn.
If the pandemic has taught us one lesson about the resilience or otherwise of our school system, is that it urgently needs to be.