Gavin Williamson: Teaching unions 'can't pretend to be sorry' over exit of 'disastrous' education secretary

15 September 2021, 14:24 | Updated: 15 September 2021, 17:50

Gavin Williamson was the first minister to be removed in Boris Johnson's cabinet reshuffle after a tumultuous time as education secretary.

Having supported Mr Johnson's leadership campaign and being rewarded with a top job, the 45-year-old career politician said it had been a "privilege to serve as education secretary since 2019".

Mr Williamson was moved to the brief after serving as defence secretary under Theresa May and chief whip before that, after leading her campaign to become prime minister.

There were rumours he might be shifted to Northern Ireland secretary by Mr Johnson as he was parliamentary private secretary to Hugo Swire when he was Northern Ireland secretary in 2011 and was a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee.

However, the Yorkshireman, who has been MP for South Staffordshire since 2010, is understood to have rejected a move so returns to the back benches after four years at the front.

His removal was of little surprise to many after Mr Williamson oversaw the schools fiasco last year in which an algorithm was used to determine A-level and GCSE grades in England following the cancellation of exams due to the pandemic.

Mr Williamson performed a U-turn and the algorithm was eventually scrapped but despite calls for his resignation, he remained in his post.

He also clung on this year after GCSE exams were cancelled and Mr Williamson said students' behaviour had become worse over lockdown, prompting a backlash from parents and teachers.

Labour's shadow education secretary Kate Green said the fiasco was Mr Williamson's "legacy".

"Gavin Williamson has failed children and young people, their parents and our hard-working education staff throughout one of the most testing periods in our history," she said.

"Two years of exams chaos and staff abandoned, unsupported and demoralised. That is Gavin Williamson's legacy.

"The prime minister has allowed this to happen, keeping a failing education secretary in post for months and refusing to fight for children's futures."

The National Education Union said they "can't pretend to be sorry" about Mr Williamson's departure.

"He failed to engage with us on school safety during COVID-19 and presided over funding cuts to the most disadvantaged schools," they added.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), told the BBC he was "not surprised" by Mr Williamson's sacking.

He suggested Mr Williamson was among those ministers who had been appointed for "various beliefs they had, various tribal loyalties" before being faced by the "extraordinary circumstances" of the COVID crisis.

Jo Grady, the general secretary of the University and College Union, said Mr Williamson would be remembered as a "disastrous secretary of state who caused deep and lasting damage".

"From the mutant algorithm which attempted to hardwire inequalities into the exam system, to his negligent mismanagement of the pandemic leading to schools, universities and colleges becoming Covid incubators, Williamson's long list of failures is shocking," she added.

Mr Williamson's most recent gaffe happened just last week after he appeared to confuse England footballer Marcus Rashford with England rugby player Maro Itoje, who is also black.

The MP, whose parents were both Labour voters, has had a long relationship with the education sector, becoming national chair of Conservative Students in 1997 and accusing the National Union of Students of acting like a "branch of the Labour Party".

His wife, with who he has two children, is also a former teacher and he was a school governor.

The now-backbencher, who was a county councillor before he became an MP, also worked as a manager at a fireplace manufacturer then co-owned a pottery firm and worked for an architectural design firm before becoming an MP in 2010, after standing unsuccessfully in 2005.

He quickly climbed the parliamentary ladder and was parliamentary private secretary to then-prime minister David Cameron in 2013.

Shortly after becoming defence secretary in 2017, he was called out for dining with the wife of a former Putin minister in exchange for a £30,000 donation to the Conservative Party.

He then claimed Jeremy Corbyn met a Czech diplomat, who turned out to be a spy, in the 80s and was told to "focus on his job" by Labour.

Mr Williamson made headlines again in 2018 after the Salisbury poisonings for saying: "Frankly, Russia should go away, and it should shut up".

Russia responded by saying that "market wench talk....reflects his extreme intellectual impotency", however Ukraine's president backed Mr Williamson up.

He was asked to resign from his position as defence secretary after Theresa May said she had "compelling evidence" Mr Williamson had leaked confidential National Security Council information related to Huawei's potential involvement in the UK's 5G network - something he "swore on his children's lives" he was not responsible for.

Not a stranger to controversy, Mr Williamson admitted he had an affair while working at a fireplace company in 2004, calling it a "dreadful mistake".

He also drew ire from parliamentary authorities in 2016 for keeping a Mexican redknee tarantula called Cronus in his parliamentary office while he was chief whip.