Labour has accused the education secretary Gavin Williamson of presiding over “a summer of chaos, incompetence and confusion,” as he updated MPs on schools reopening in England.
Williamson was addressing the House of Commons for the first time since last month’s U-turn on A-level and GCSE results.
The shadow education secretary, Kate Green, accused him of allowing the interests of children and their families to “take a back seat,” while he “U-turned on everything from CAGs [centre assessment grades] to face masks, and let officials take the blame”.
Since the exams fiasco, regulator Ofqual’s chief executive Sally Collier has announced her resignation. The Department for Education’s permanent secretary, Jonathan Slater, was then removed by the prime minister in a decision the FDA union said marked “the end of ministerial accountability”.
Green said Williamson was returning to Westminster, “after a summer of chaos, incompetence and confusion that has caused enormous stress to children, young people, their families and teachers”.
She added: “He must now take responsibility for ensuring that a summer of incompetence does not descend further into an autumn of disaster and dismay.”
Headteachers reacted with exasperation when guidance on how schools would be treated in future local lockdowns was published late on Friday evening, just days before schools were due to reopen to all pupils.
There was also frustration about last week’s decision that secondary schools in areas subject to local lockdowns would be told that pupils should wear face coverings in communal areas – a decision criticised at the time by some Conservative MPs.
In a statement, Williamson called the return of all children to schools in England, a “massive milestone”.
He apologised to students and their families for the disruption to their education, and highlighted the extra provision the government would be making for catchup lessons in the coming months.
“I know that these past few months have been some of the most challenging that schools, parents and most of all children have faced.
The education secretary also praised schools staff, saying, “I would like to take this opportunity to applaud all of our dedicated education staff for the incredible efforts that they have made to keep children learning at this difficult time. I am confident that we have the necessary preparations in hand to ensure a successful return for all of our pupils.”
He said he hoped recent advice from chief medical officers about the risks of contracting Covid-19 in schools, had, “given parents extra reassurance that with protective measures, out pupils are returning to a safe environment, and an environment they will gain so much from.”
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The education secretary’s job appears to be safe for the time being, despite the backlash that followed the exams U-turn.
He was given a relatively easy ride by Tory colleagues in the House of Commons on Tuesday despite many being privately exasperated at the shaky handling of the exams issue and other last-minute policy changes in recent weeks.
Williamson was challenged by Luton North MP, Sarah Owen, about when all children will have received their BTec results. He said the awarding body, Pearson, had reassured him that where students were still awaiting results, it was because it did not have sufficient information. “They have assured us that they’re making every effort to close that circle,” he said.
The education secretary also defended the government’s programme for purchasing laptops for children without digital resources at home – criticised by campaign groups for being too slow. He said it had been carried out, “in good order, and on time, when we have said we will do so.”
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