What Gavin Williamson’s promotion will mean for schools

12 Aug

On 24 July 2019, Gavin Williamson CBE, the former Defence Secretary of State, was appointed Education Secretary replacing Damian Hinds, sacked by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, following the night of the long knives.

On 30 April 2019, former Prime Minister Theresa May dismissed Williamson from his position as Defence Secretary following allegations that he leaked the news from a top-level National Security Council meeting that the Chinese business giant Huawei was to be granted limited access to help build UK’s new 5G network.  Williamson was reported to have been opposed to this move.  He strenuously denied leaking the information.  Sir Mark Sedwill, Mrs May’s Cabinet Secretary, was asked to investigate the leak after The Daily Telegraph reported her plan for Huawei to have a role.   His report pointed the finger at Williamson.

(1)     Who is Gavin Williamson?

The 43-year-old MP from South Staffordshire was elected to parliament in 2010. Educated at state schools and raised in Scarborough by Labour-supporting parents, Williamson became involved in the Conservative party while studying social sciences at Bradford University.   A few years later, he became a county councillor in North Yorkshire.

Williamson was appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary to the then Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin, before becoming Parliamentary Private Secretary to former Prime Minister David Cameron.  He served in this position from October 2013.  On 14 July 2017 he was appointed Chief Whip in the May government. As Chief Whip, he played a crucial role in sealing the deal with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland to prop up the minority government.

On 2 November 2017, Mrs May appointed him Secretary of State for Defence when Sir Michael Fallon resigned after he was accused of sexual harassment by Jane Merrick, when she was a young parliamentary journalist.   Many Tory MPs and the armed forces’ top brass were astonished by the appointment.  However, once he was Defence Secretary, he successfully lobbied for more money for the armed forces, much to the chagrin of the Treasury. Following the nerve gas poisoning incidents of the double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, on 4 March 2018 by (according to the British government) Russia, Williamson told Russia to “shut up and go away”.

The new education secretary was educated at three state schools in his home town of Scarborough, East Ayton Primary, Raincliffe School, a state comprehensive, and Scarborough Sixth Form College before attending Bradford University.  He is only the second education secretary to be educated at a comprehensive following Justine Greening. Williamson’s wife is also a former teacher.

Williamson will be expected to address the many crises facing schools, FE colleges and universities.  Funding will be one of the many problems – probably the most daunting.

(2)     Education Funding

Headteachers have warned that there is a £5.7 billion funding gap. The National Education Union’s appears to have another economics adviser because this union avers that the funding gap is £12.6 billion.  Whatever, the Education Select Committee confirmed the concerns of the school leaders calling for extra, desperately needed cash.  Robert Halfon, former Education Minister for FE and current chair of the Committee, said that a comprehensive bottom-up national assessment of costs was needed to make the education system fit for the 21st century. Financial pressures had been created by rising costs (not matched by any extra government funding), more pupils in the system and an increase in mental health problems.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “The government has ducked this issue for far too long and its negligence in this regard has brought the education system to its knees.  Jules White, Headteacher of Tanbridge House School in Horsham, who organised the WorthLess? campaign which included 2,000 headteachers marching to Downing Street a year ago, said that the new Education Secretary should “ditch the ‘more money than ever’ nonsense” and deliver the extra “dosh” required by schools.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested during his bid to become Prime Minister that previous spending reductions would be reversed which would mean adding £4.6 billions for education.  However, more recently during his leadership campaign, he announced that he would “level up per pupil funding” to at least £5,000 per pupil for a secondary school/academy and £4,000 for a primary school/academy. This would cost £150 million to the secondary budget and £590 million for the primary sector, according to the Education Policy Institute.  This is good news for education, but it will be the institutions in the wealthiest areas that would receive a much greater boost than those in the poorer ones – especially the inner-cities of the country.

“Schools with less challenging intakes would benefit the most — those with low levels of disadvantaged pupils, schools that are serving affluent communities, those without large numbers of pupils with low prior attainment and those with few pupils for whom English is not their first language,” the EPI said. EPI added that primary schools/academies with fewer than 5% intake of pupils eligible for free school meals would see an average increase of £271 per pupils. In each of the 163 grammar schools, the budget would increase by £130,000.

Schools and academies in London and the northeast of England would benefit least, the EPI added. Jon Andrews, EPI’s deputy head of research, said: “The Prime Minister’s drive to level up school funding implies that funding should be equal despite the fact that children’s circumstances and opportunities are anything but.

“This approach would disproportionately direct additional funding towards the least disadvantaged schools with the least-challenging intakes at a time when progress in closing the attainment gap has stalled and may be about to go into reverse.”

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU) has been strident in his call for better funding for schools and academies.  “Our message to Boris Johnson is that if he is serious about a domestic agenda which includes education as his top priority, we need more than just promises on the side of a bus,” he said. “We need real money for real pupils in real schools.”

According to Sally Weale, Education correspondent of The Guardian, “The NEU, together with the NAHT, the Association of School and College Leaders and the f40 group of the lowest-funded local authorities, has said an additional £12.6bn is needed by 2022-23 to reverse cuts and provide ‘a standard of education that society expects’. Johnson’s offer, which fails to address the particularly acute problems in special educational needs and post-16 funding, falls short by quite a margin.”

Meanwhile, on 27 September 2019, five weeks away from the Brexit deadline, more than 5,000 headteachers will walk out of their schools and academies to join a march on Westminster so that they can highlight – yet again – the crisis in educational funding. It will be their second protest, the first having been organised by Jules White.

Theresa May’s parting shot to education before she bowed out on 25 July 2019 was to sanction a rise in teachers’ salaries by 2.75%.  However, the former Chancellor, Philip Hammond, sanctioned an extra £105 million from the Treasury, which would fund only 0.75% of the rise, leaving an extra dent of 2.0% in the budgets of schools and academies – assuming their governors implement the rise for all of them.

Williamson must also work out his response to the Augar review on university and college finances, which had been commissioned by Theresa May.  Philip Augar, the former equities City of London broker, recommended that university tuition fees in England be reduced from over £9,000 annual per student to £7,500.  He also proposed that there should be a significant increase in support for further education and vocational skills funding.  But universities are saying that they would need extra direct funding from government if they lost fee income.

(3)     Issues confronting Gavin Williamson

Apart from school funding, what will be lurking in Williamson’s red box?

(1)        In the special needs sector, the numbers of pupils needing education, health and care plans (EHCPs) are soaring. Councils are going millions of pounds into the red trying to educate children with special needs.

(2)        Schools and academies continue to experience much pain trying to recruit and retain able teachers.   The outgoing Education Secretary Damian Hinds made strenuous efforts to find a solution to this problem.

(3)        Tensions grow in relation to the implementation of sex and relationship education in September 2020.  Protestors are laying siege to schools and academies calling for an end to a programme that uses books about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) families.  Equality campaigners are quick to mention that Williamson voted against legalising gay marriages in 2013.

Meanwhile, Williamson, according to Caroline Wheeler, the Deputy Political Editor of The Sunday Times, is planning to put three Fs into education – funding, further education and free schools.  Boris Johnson, during his leadership bid, promised to boost school funding by £4.6 billion a year by 2022-23.  Williamson is delighted.  His wife, Joanne was a teacher and his brother is currently one.  Until recently, he was a school governor at St Thomas More Catholic Primary School in Great Wyrley, Staffordshire, and served on the governing board of Scarborough Sixth Form College, where he studied for his A levels.

According to his friends, he is focused on giving apprenticeships the same status as degrees.  In March 2013, he said (during a parliamentary debate): We must ensure people understand apprenticeships are as good (as), if not better than, going to university.”

It is, perhaps, unsurprising that Johnson has given Williamson such a plum job.  One of May’s former advisers, Joey Jones, said of him that he was “a dangerous person not to have onside” as he has been “right at the heart of it (i.e. the government) for a long time.”  He added: “He knows where the bodies are buried.”

(4)     The Education Ministers

Nick Gibb, long-standing schools minister who survived Johnson’s cull, will lend a modicum of stability to education with his penchant for phonics, the knowledge-rich curriculum and the English Baccalaureate.

On the other hand, Boris’s Johnson’s brother, Jo, who is now the universities’ minister, is a critic of cutting tuition fees as he thinks the move would destabilise university funding and simply benefit the students from well-heeled families.

Kemi Badenoch, the Children and Families Minister, is the final member of the ministerial team.  Elected MP from Saffron Walden in 2017, Ms Badenoch was born in Wimbledon, grew up in Nigeria “living without electricity and doing my homework by candlelight” and briefly lived in the USA. At 16, she made UK her home. She did her A levels in an FE college in London, while working part-time in McDonalds to support herself.

She studied engineering at the University of Sussex and is a member of the British Computer Society and the Women’s Engineering Society.  In addition, she studied law at Birkbeck, University of London.  She has worked as a mathematics tutor, a systems analyst and digital director at The Spectator.  She was also a governor at Jubilee Primary School in Lambeth and the Apostle College, a Catholic secondary school in Southwark.

In the week when Johnson formed his Cabinet, Williamson met his senior team to discuss his priorities, stressing that he wanted to re-energise the free schools programme and deliver on the Prime Minister’s pledge to “level up per pupil funding” raising the threshold to at least £5,000 per pupil.

Williamson is delighted with his new posting. A friend said of him: “Gavin always remembers his own amazing history teachers, the husband and wife couple, Mr and Mrs Johnson.  He is passionate about driving up standards to ensure every child – no matter what background – can have access to those awe-inspiring teachers that play such a vital role in helping children achieve their potential.”

However, the former Downing Street communications director, Katie Perrior warned (given his track record as Defence Secretary), that Williamson “poses a huge risk”.  The bad news for those working in the system is that he is now in charge of them. The good news is that Education Secretaries have the habit (like Henry VIII’s wives) of not lasting long.

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