Returning children back to school in September is not political but the right thing to do; that's according to Gary Williamson, the under-fire education secretary who is – by the account of some Tory backbenchers – barely clinging to his cabinet position in the wake of his A-level grading debacle.
Getting education back on track "is morally, socially and economically necessary," claimed Williamson in a Sunday Express article last week. Adding that there "is simply no substitute for the classroom, and the education and wellbeing of children must come first as we move forward as a country."
With Boris Johnson staking his reputation recently on schools fully reopening in England at the start of the school term in September, the onus is on the PM's government to deliver. Otherwise, it might have serious consequences for Boris Johnson. Potentially even for his odds to remain at No.10.
Less than two weeks ago, Johnson, while visiting schools in east London, insisted a full return to school was a "national priority", claiming it was the country's "moral duty" to deliver on the promise of education to hundreds of thousands of students. That have been left idle since schools shuttered in March, due to the draconian lockdown measures brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.
But it's not simple as just reopening schools. Job done. Reopening schools to students of all ages is fraught with difficulty, and nary a solution in sight that all invested parties can embrace confidently.
Be it politicians, unions, teachers, parents, students, disagreement and concerns revolve around several talking points: the safety of all concerned on school premises and the risk of Covid-19 outbreaks; the impact on the R rate by older teenage pupils transmitting the virus; safety on school transport; effectiveness of the NHS test and trace. Getting it wrong on one or more of these scores could result in yet another closure of schools, although such an unthinkable prospect would be an "absolute last resort."
Johnson needed the distraction involving Gavin Williamson and Ofqual in a row over the controversial A-level and GSCE grading algorithms like a hole in the head. Bearing in mind the blot on his reputation already, after failing to deliver on the promise of getting education back on track – to get all primary school pupils back in classrooms across the country – before the summer break.
Gavin Williamson has expressed he was 'incredibly sorry' for the distress caused to students – but refused to acknowledge calls for his resignation and/or sacking.
Calls to sack Williamson are unhelpful, as pointed out by health secretary Matt Hancock when speaking to Sky News among other media outlets. He called it an unnecessary distraction at a time when the focus should be on getting schools to reopen and children sat behind their desks."I don't think we should be distracted from that task now. We need to absolutely focus on it," said Hancock. Hancock referred to Williamson's pivotal role in implementing Johnson's mandate to get education back on track. And he insisted that all Ministers were "trying to do their best" under the extraordinary circumstances, including Williamson who he defended ardently. "These are unprecedented circumstances and I think everybody is working their hardest and trying to do their best in very difficult circumstances, and I know that is true of Gavin Williamson as it is of all members of the Government," said Hancock.
It's fair to say another failure is simply not an option for Johnson's government. Although if things do go wrong again, odds the person to pay the price will probably be Williamson and not Johnson. Small thing called a cabinet reshuffle, which is the fortuitous province of the nation's PM.
Minor changes to Johnson's Cabinet are expected after the summer recess before a full January 'reset' when the Brexit transition period has ended.