Gavin Williamson has spent the pandemic being guided by populist politics rather than children’s education
You couldn’t make it up. Less than three weeks ago, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, was threatening to take legal action against schools in Islington and Greenwich, in London, if they closed a few days early for Christmas in light of alarming increases in Covid infection rates. On Wednesday night, primary schools in these boroughs were told that they would need to reopen as usual on Monday, unlike those in most other London boroughs, despite their high infection rates and a hospital in Greenwich declaring a major incident just a couple of days before that. Then, on Friday evening, Williamson led the government in its first U-turn of the year to announce that these schools would be closing from Monday after all, giving parents and teachers precisely zero opportunity to make arrangements.
It is just the latest example of Williamson’s breathtaking incompetence. At every turn in this pandemic, he has made missteps that will affect children for the rest of their lives. A half-decent education secretary would have worked with teaching unions to set in train a staged reopening of schools last May when infection rates were falling, as senior paediatricians were calling for at the time. They would have put on a programme of structured outdoor activities over the summer holidays for children who had missed months of school. They would have properly invested in equipping schools and homes for distance learning in the event of the second wave everyone was expecting. They would have introduced a school-wide test, track and trace scheme run by public health experts, rather than expecting headteachers to organise and oversee volunteer-led mass testing with virtually no notice. They would have stumped up for a tuition fee rebate for undergraduates and asked universities to move to distance learning rather than encouraging students to spread the virus across the country, which has resulted in many young people forking out for a university experience that has involved long spells of self-isolating in boxrooms. None of this is rocket science. It just takes a little imagination, a modicum of competence and a tiny bit of passion for wellbeing.