All change: Gavin Williamson out as education secretary

The MP for Staffordshire South confirmed the end of his two-year tenure on Twitter, as the prime minister undertook a reshuffle of his ministerial team

Gavin Williamson is no longer the secretary of state for education, he confirmed in a tweet today.

The MP for South Staffordshire since 2019 was appointed to the cabinet-level role in July 2019, after Boris Johnson took office as prime minister.

The name of his replacement has yet to be revealed.

Mr Williamson tweeted on Wednesday 15 September: “It has been a privilege to serve as Education Secretary since 2019. Despite the challenges of the global pandemic, I’m particularly proud of the transformational reforms I’ve led in Post 16 education: in further education colleges, our Skills agenda, apprenticeships and more.

“This programme will create better life opportunities for pupils and students for many years to come. I look forward to continuing to support the Prime Minster [sic] and the government.”

The news was confirmed by an official notice from the office for the prime minister, which also confirmed Williamson had left cabinet. A spokesperson for Number 10 Downing Street said: “Gavin Williamson has played a key role in transforming the skills agenda as we create a high wage and high skilled economy, providing a lifetime skills guarantee for millions across the country.”

In his two-year tenure, Mr Williamson was responsible for handling the government’s education policies: an agenda the unprecedented impact of the Covid pandemic often threatened to derail.

During his time in office, Williamson was criticised for how the DfE handled the awarding of GCSEs, A-levels, BTecs and other qualifications. A last-minute U-turn on the use of an Ofqual moderation algorithm in 2020, widely perceived to be flawed by those in the education sector, resulted in record numbers of top A-level grades and left the admissions process badly affected. After pledging exams would go ahead the following summer, Williamson was forced to retract the plans to the consternation of many teachers that felt unprepared.

However, Williamson did bring forward plans for a Higher Education Freedom of Speech bill, that is currently under debate in parliament. He also oversaw the return of students to campuses earlier this year and delivered the government’s interim response to the Augar review in January. He announced the government’s plans to press ahead with plans for a post-qualifications admissions system, oversaw the launch of the government’s Turing Scheme and saw the appointment of Tory peer James Wharton to the role of chair of the Office for Students.

Last week Williamson addressed the Universities UK 2021 conference.

In what transpires to have been his closing speech to the sector, Mr Williamson said: “I call on you to help bring our nation together, instead of driving our nation apart. Rather than manufacturing offences from the past, let us instead come together to tackle injustice and promote equality for the students and staff of today.” He called on vice-chancellors to pursue “genuine injustices” in education.

He also talked at length about the need to “drive-up [the] quality” of university courses, which he tied to the Conservative’s social mobility agenda. Earlier this year, Williamson condemned reports the University of Hull would not mark down students for poor spelling, grammar and punctuation in exams.

“If a graduate begins a job without basic literacy this serves no one,” Williamson said. “Not them, not their peers, not the employer and not the nation. It undermines the value of a British honours degree.”

Kate Green MP, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said: “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.

“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.”

Commenting on the departure of Williamson, University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady said:

“Gavin Williamson will be remembered by university and college staff 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.

“Throughout his time as Secretary of State for Education Williamson has pursued an agenda that attempted to undermine the purpose of education, most recently choosing to slash arts and humanities funding in half and extend the marketised, debt-fuelled loan model to our colleges.

“Rather than responding to the challenges of a global pandemic, he led the charge in a completely pointless culture war against university staff and students. A culture war that was entirely fabricated and led to no positive change in the sector. Wasting such an inordinate amount of time just to satisfy the hardcore Tory base underlines just how little he really cares about education.

“The next Secretary of State for Education has an opportunity to build a new relationship with the staff and students in our universities and colleges, but they must commit to repairing the damage that has been done by Gavin Williamson.”

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