The beleaguered education secretary has defended taking a trip to Scarborough the week before the A-levels fiasco in England that left pupils devastated and threw university admissions into disarray.
Gavin Williamson, who is facing mounting pressure to resign over his handling of the exams debacle and failed attempts to get children back to school before the summer holidays, said he remained in “constant communication” with his department throughout his visit.
He also shared on social media that he had cancelled his family holiday abroad in order to be able to focus on the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic on schools and education.
The trip to the North Yorkshire seaside resort of Scarborough, reported to have taken place the week beginning 3 August as Scottish results were published to widespread uproar among disappointed pupils, was to visit members of his family that he had not seen since lockdown began.
According to the Sunday Times, Williamson cancelled what it described as “a crucial meeting” with school leaders to discuss the return of children to school in September, but took part in Zoom calls with Boris Johnson and other ministers while he was away.
In a post on Twitter on Sunday morning, Williamson said: “I cancelled our family holiday abroad this year to focus on the challenges Covid-19 created for the education sector.”
He added: “Over the summer, I went to see family in Scarborough for the first time since lockdown, and while there I was in constant communication with the department.”
A few responses were supportive, saying Williamson and other government colleagues who have been pictured on their holidays – including the prime minister, who was photographed in Scotland, – should not have to justify taking a break. Others were scathing and called on him to resign.
Williamson, who has been nicknamed the “useful idiot” by some union leaders, is said to have lost the trust of his officials to such an extent that he can no longer serve effectively in the cabinet.
Sir Bernard Jenkin, who chairs the powerful Commons liaison committee, told the Observer that after Williamson’s humiliating U-turn over A-level and GCSE results, the secretary of state made a bad situation worse and caused a “complete breakdown” of trust in his department by seeking to blame officials for the crisis.
The Guardian revealed that the chair of Ofqual threatened to quit unless Williamson publicly backed the exams regulator and admitted it was behind the U-turn that salvaged millions of student grades.
Roger Taylor’s ultimatum came after the education secretary tried to lay the blame for the exams fiasco at the door of Ofqual after a humiliating climbdown that scrapped A-levels and GCSEs awarded by algorithm, and reverted to school-assessed grades instead.
Another of the most senior and influential Conservatives on the backbenches said he would be amazed if Williamson survived for long, and that his reputation in the education world had been irreparably damaged.
Williamson’s fate is expected to be discussed by the executive of the backbench 1922 Committee of Tory MPs when parliament returns from the summer break on 1 September. His cabinet future depends on the success of the full reopening of schools to all children from the beginning of September.
The prime minister said the reopening of schools was a national priority. He has been supported by the chief and deputy chief medical officers from across the UK, who said this weekend that while there were no risk-free options, further time out of the classroom would increase inequalities and reduce the life chances of children, and could exacerbate physical and mental health issues.
Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said plans to get all children back to school in early September were at serious risk because of government incompetence and the chaos caused by the exams fiasco.
Starmer said that two crucial weeks, which should have been spent preparing for schools to reopen, have been wasted dealing with a self-inflicted “mess” that has destroyed public confidence in government.
Source: The Guardian