Express & Star comment: Not the right time for Gavin Williamson to step down

There are those who have called for the resignation of Education Secretary Gavin Williamson over the fiasco surrounding exam results.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson

Now is not the time for the South Staffordshire MP to leave office, though he must be in no doubt his standing has been severely damaged by the chaotic and disorganised distribution of grades.

The Government yesterday afternoon bowed to public pressure and accepted it would be unable to ride roughshod over hundreds of thousands of teenagers. Mr Williamson’s team had caused considerable anxiety and upheaval for the unfortunate students who had been unable to sit exams and were then marked down because they attended state schools.

Scotland had already acted to provide A-level students with grades estimated by teachers, rather than an algorithm. There was a sense of inevitability the rest of the UK would follow suit. Yesterday’s announcement also provided comfort to GCSE students, who were facing the same mayhem later this week.

It nips in the bud the likely outrage that would have followed as students braced themselves for grades lower than those estimated by their teachers.

While Mr Williamson can rest more easily now the immediate crisis is averted, he must answer serious questions about why he was unable to do better in the five months he had to provide leadership. He is not alone in failing to trust teachers. Those in Scotland and Wales had also undermined the system by putting their faith in an algorithm that proved unreliable.

Examinations are an important transition phase between childhood and adulthood. For a great many, a day that ought to have brought joy instead brought despair. Ministers are responsible for that and charges of ineptitude can not so easily be brushed aside. The mental health of youngsters has taken a severe dent while trust in the education system has been damaged.

We might have reasonably expected the Government to do more in recent months.

If we were able to build hospitals in a matter of days, open pubs and provide the economy with a kickstart, why did we fail students so badly? Surely, it would not have been beyond the wit of responsible adults to provide better online tuition, to ensure youngsters had access to learning materials and to provide examinations too.

Examinations are by their very nature socially distanced and with the sort of social distancing measures that we see in offices, restaurants and other public spaces, might we not have given youngsters that opportunity?

The Government has been found wanting, and not for the first time. It is less than four weeks ago since Boris Johnson’s scripted gag about Keir Starmer’s flip flops – yet the Government has been forced into yet another U-turn.

Gavin Williamson previously asserted there would be no U-turn on the flawed A-level algorithm. It is not the first time the Government has rowed back on a pledge.

Mrs Thatcher’s Government was famously not-for-turning; the present Government must make fewer errors of judgement if it wishes to boost its credibility among the electorate.

It gets itself into too many unnecessary scrapes.

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