Children are paying the price of ministerial incompetence, writes Simon Heffer
It is widely recognised that the present cabinet is probably the most mediocre in British political history, its quality only marginally improved by the defenestration of Matt Hancock. This came about deliberately and not by accident: those with minds of their own are not wanted near the Prime Minister because of the ease with which they expose his idleness, dishonesty and incompetence. Rarities who can do up their shoelaces without an instructional video survive either because a lack of self-respect allows them to tolerate Johnson, or they themselves are so addled by ambition they easily turn a blind eye to his iniquities.
None of this applies to Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary. He is an exhibition piece of mediocrity. It is all the more tragic, therefore, that he currently bears responsibility for the education system inflicted on the children and young people of England. His lack of comprehension not just of the system, but of the whole idea of education, would be terrifying at the best of times. However, he exercises these handicaps when primary and secondary pupils are suffering from a disruption of their studies unique in the history of compulsory education, and when universities are being undermined and disrupted by zealots whose priority is to conduct extremist political campaigns as part of what is called “cancel culture”. These serious problems might well blight the rest of a child’s or a student’s life, and thus have a wider effect on society. But if Williamson is aware of these potential consequences, he appears remarkably unbothered by them.
The first public manifestation of the extent of Williamson’s problems came with the resignation in early June of Sir Kevan Collins. Johnson’s so-called “Education Recovery Tsar”, appointed only in February, resigned when his recommendation that the government devote £15bn to fund the catch-up education of children whose studies had suffered during the pandemic was met by a grant of just £1.4bn. Johnson, as is his wont, slid backwards from his earlier munificent rhetoric and tried to pretend that the money would be adequate. Now beyond humiliation, he has yet to learn that the grandiloquent claims he used to make as an MP, or as Mayor of London, are far harder to undo now he is purportedly running the country. He couldn’t care less about the rapid turnover of experts and advisers who, like Collins, leave when they realise they have been used as window dressing and their considerable knowledge simply discounted.
Even more galling is that in this case Collins’ resignation has also left Williamson unmoved, literally and metaphorically. Whereas most secretaries of state would have found their own position untenable after a prime minister had shown such contempt for a senior departmental adviser, or would at least have briefed that they were fighting with the Treasury to have the funding decision revised upwards, the hopeless Williamson did neither. In his resignation letter Collins warned the government it risked failing “hundreds of thousands of pupils”. Since not even Williamson’s best friend could begin to pretend he knows more about education than Collins, it would be interesting to know on what basis the Education Secretary thinks Collins was wrong. The ex-Tsar also said that “the settlement provided will define the international standing of England’s education system for years to come.”
One wonders then how much Williamson cares, if he cares at all, about how he leaves the standing of England’s education system, so long as he secures another job once he has finished trashing it. That he doesn’t mind the government of which he’s a member sticking up two fingers to a hired expert of the calibre of Sir Kevan Collins is of a piece with his abject failure to look at the education system – even before the pandemic wrought its baleful effects – and develop a vision to apply to it. Notably, the English schools system (Williamson has no responsibility for Scotland where, incredibly, standards are even lower, nor for Wales) has for around 30 years disregarded the humanities in favour of vocational education. The Prime Minister, who spouts tags from the Classics and is allegedly writing a book about Shakespeare, presides over a country where Latin and Greek are barely taught outside private and selective schools and where the GCSE English syllabus gives students the most limited idea of the nation’s literary culture. Perhaps Williamson can grasp that the nation needs engineers and computer scientists; but, like previous education secretaries, he fails to see the mind-opening value of studying languages, the history of civilisations, or indeed any form of literary or philosophical thought. Meanwhile, the teaching of music ranges from the dismal to the non-existent thanks to the near-extinction in the state sector of the peripatetic instrumental teacher, and of organised singing and music as a serious curricular subject.
One wonders then how much Williamson cares, if he cares at all, about how he leaves the standing of England’s education system, so long as he secures another job once he has finished trashing it
But Williamson’s absence of vision and lack of grip do not apply just to schools. Our universities, from the heights of Oxbridge and the Russell Group down to the lowliest ex-polytechnic, are gripped by a crisis of fearsome proportions in dealing with what is popularly known as “cancel culture”. It starts with student activism, a movement quite unlike the straightforward protest familiar to the pot-smoking poseurs of 1968. This activism is about silencing the expression on campus of what the activists deem unorthodox views, and editing out of various curriculums (notably history, but also literature) ideas and interpretations now deemed offensive. Again, unlike in 1968, the agitators can call up a mob on Twitter to help shut down both freedom of speech and academic freedom – the freedom to teach subjects even if they cause discomfort to the student. This last point has caused another new phenomenon: dons, heads of house and even vice-chancellors being cowed by their students, and in many cases afraid to break ranks with them or challenge their often ignorant views. Thus universities are less and less institutions in which ideas can be exchanged and something approaching the truth determined, and more places of state-subsidised indoctrination.
Williamson hasn’t a clue how to restore order. He has proposed a Bill forcing universities to respect freedom of speech; it smells unworkable and it is almost certainly unnecessary. Universities remain heavily dependent on state funding. If those seeking to subvert the normal purpose of a university had their funding cut, vice-chancellors, whose job it is to run a civilised institution, would quickly get the message. Imposing minority views on generations of students in an anti-intellectual fashion and at the taxpayers’ expense should be enough for a talented and thoughtful education secretary to make hay with. Williamson fails to do this because he fails to grasp the point of a university. “We must never forget that the purpose of education,” he said last year, “is to give people the skills they need to get a good and meaningful job.”
In that astonishing statement Williamson not only displayed his essentially moronic nature, and his massive unsuitability for the job he now holds – appointed, let us not forget, by a man who constantly shows off the fruits of his Eton and Oxford education – but also disparaged the work over centuries by men and women to impart learning, and the joy of learning, to billions of scholars here and around the world. Perhaps if one lacks much of a mind oneself it is impossible to grasp the concept of refining or expanding the minds of others – surely a higher and more fundamental purpose of education than landing a “meaningful job”. Of course, you can get a meaningful job such as being education secretary, and in no time at all transform it into an utterly meaningless one. Bradford University, where Williamson was allegedly educated, must be hugely proud of him, and all that his life and work say about it.
Johnson is famed for his sense of humour; and so one must presume it is his little postmodern joke to put perhaps the most gormless man he could find in charge of England’s education system and the policies affecting it. It has been rumoured that Williamson’s pointlessness is now so widely appreciated that even Johnson has had enough, and he will be removed from his post in the next reshuffle. This has been cited to explain why Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, supplied such meagre funding, since he did not want to give Williamson a political victory so soon before his defenestration. Let us pray the rumour is true.
Simon Heffer is a historian, columnist for The Telegraph, and Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham