The former education secretary Gavin Williamson has been knighted, the government has announced.
It comes less than a year after he was unceremoniously sacked in a reshuffle by prime minister Boris Johnson.
Williamson – also a former chief whip and defence secretary – had faced heavy criticism for his handling of the pandemic’s impact on schools, most notably 2020’s exams fiasco.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of school leaders’ union ASCL, said leaders and parents alike would be “surprised” by the decision. Williamson’s tenure was “one of endless muddle, inevitable U-turns, and even threats of legal action to override local decisions”.
Sam Freedman, a former DfE adviser, accused the government of “waiting for a major war to sneak out the knighthood” because of their embarrassment.
Honour shows ‘contempt’ for children and staff
Williamson’s dismissal also followed criticism over chaotic school closure and reopening plans, and a threat to sue school leaders and councils that tried to close early for Christmas in 2020.
His department’s reluctance to provide free school meals support during holidays also sparked outcry, with lobbying by footballer Marcus Rashford forcing U-turns.
Lib Dem education spokesperson Munira Wilson said people would be “outraged”, adding: “The only award Gavin Williamson should be given is the one for worst education secretary in history.”
Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said the honour showed “utter contempt” for children and staff.
Last year Williamson was accused of endangering the health of hundreds of thousands of pupils by scientists, who warned fully reopening schools without robust mitigation measures” was “reckless”.
Knighthood was left out of new year’s honours
Williamson’s name was conspicuous in its absence from the new year’s honours list, having been tipped for a knighthood in 2021.
The Telegraph reported that a government source said it was due then but delayed over the Sue Gray report, before being approved once police decided against investigating a DfE gathering.
A brief statement released by Downing Street today said the Queen was “pleased to approve that the honour of knighthood be conferred” upon Williamson.
Anyone can nominate individuals for honours, but who receives one and which honour they receive is typically decided by committees of civil servants and independent members.
These recommendations go to the prime minister, who then recommends them to the Queen.
A new system of awarding of honours for parliamentary and political service was only introduced relatively recently under the Conservatives in 2012.
A House of Commons Library report in 2017 noted it was a “controversial part of the honours system”, because of public suspicion it could be dished out for political support – or for “just doing the day job”.
Chief government and opposition whips serve on the parliamentary and political service commitee – meaning its former members include Williamson himself.
Barton said problems under Williamson’s tenure as education secretary were “not all Williamson’s fault”, however, with Downing Street partly at fault. Covid would have been “challenging for any education secretary”.