U-turns, broken promises, gaslighting, deceit and good old-fashioned cock-ups ̶ our government’s response to education in the pandemic has been jaw-dropping, says Laura McInerney
In last year’s political review, I complained that truth was on the floor weeping and hoped that things might be better in 2020. Oh how the gods laugh.
Standing amid the ruins of this year, it’s worth remembering that however bad it has felt, at least you didn’t preside over a two-week exams debacle causing massive anxiety for a million children, and think that, somehow, the solution was going to be giving kids a mock exam grade. Nor did you screw up sending out thousands of laptops, or meltdown the food voucher system so badly that you had to send letters begging people only to access it in the middle of the night. Or tell schools that they should plan rotas, only then to scrap the rotas.
Every single time I thought we’d finally hit rock bottom in terms of political madness this year, a trapdoor clonked open revealing another vast chamber below. Who could have believed it was possible for an education secretary to be worse than Damian Hinds ̶ a man so plain in his awfulness that it’s hard even to recall his face? And yet, given Gavin Williamson’s 2020 performance, most of us would go back in a nanosecond. Give us dull-and-useless over vain-and-deceitful-to-your-face any day of the week.
For a second it didn’t seem like it would be this way. When Williamson delivered his nine-minute speech to close schools, cancel exams and employ heads as food-delivery managers, I admit I almost thought he did well. He managed to pull off the sympathetic tones of a sad vicar while giving the appearance of being decisive.
Only later would we realise, one by one, that each promise – of laptops, of daily lessons to be broadcast by the BBC, of magical grades to be delivered without exams – was a false promise.
Only later would we realise that each promise was false
So began a common trend. A grand announcement, followed by a watered-down version in an email to schools, followed by 73 more clarifications, then months of total inaction, ending either with a massive U-turn or flat out gaslighting by a “senior government source” announcing that nothing of the sort was ever promised to begin with.
The worst bit isn’t even that promises were broken; it was the rocky relationship with the truth.
‘Lie’ is not a word one bandies around. It is quite something to accuse an education secretary of it. But how else can we explain some things this year?
For example, when Williamson said he wasn’t told about exam problems until after the grades were released. Yet, as Schools Week revealed, he met with Ofqual twice in the days leading to the results. The only way he can have not known is if he’d put his fingers in his ears during those meetings and shouted “LA LA LA, I DON’T WANT TO KNOW”. Frankly, I can’t even count that out as a possibility. Can you?
Labour, meanwhile, were actually quite good. Their newly elected headboy with the perfectly coiffed hair, Keir Starmer, patiently offered again and again to help schools re-open as quickly as possible. Boris had little to offer in reply except a weird heckle tantamount to “come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough”. It really was a very odd year.
The only upside is that in the end, most of this politics stuff doesn’t matter in the real world. Year 7 don’t actually care about Gav’s pledges. Year 3 definitely don’t. In fact, if you’re ever taking things too seriously, go sit in a reception class and see what they do to the latest Department for Education missive.
What really matters is how we are to one another. As the departure of Dominic Cummings has shown: these guys move on. Williamson probably won’t make it another 12 months. But you will. So, despite the nightmares, and stressors, and middle-of-the-night panics about calling Public Health England, just know that you have fought through the darkest year regardless of these jokers.
Next year may not be better, I know that now. But at the very least, as long as we look out for each other, we can hope it won’t be worse.