Gavin Williamson interview: ‘I’ve got the hide of a rhino - you need to in this job’

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Gavin Williamson CBE MP, Conservative politician and Secretary of State for Education and the Member of Parliament for South Staffordshire (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
Gavin Williamson CBE MP, Conservative politician and Secretary of State for Education and the Member of Parliament for South Staffordshire (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

So, is Gavin Williamson on the way out? Speculation is at fever pitch that he will not survive a rumoured reshuffle tomorrow, but the Education Secretary is in a remarkably breezy mood. He “leaves commentating to the commentators — my focus has always been on education”. “I was talking to some school friends over the summer and they said, ‘Gav, you have to have the hide of a rhino’,” he tells me, before adding with a flicker of pride: “You do need rhino characteristics. It is about grit and determination...Politicians complaining about criticism is like fishermen complaining about the sea. It is the world in which we live.”

Williamson’ time as Education Secretary has been a baptism of fire. Children have borne the brunt of what critics have called his Wild West approach to education policy in the pandemic, with last year’s exams and grading by algorithm universally deemed an unmitigated disaster and this year’s results revealing a staggering gap in achievement between state and private school pupils. Then there is the furore over Covid contact tracing and what happens to children’s data (he claims “the testing regime has been rolled out smoothly”), and the failure to address classrooms with poor ventilation. Now he is about to be flung headlong into a divisive culture war about the ethics of vaccinating children. In August, his net satisfaction rating among his own party members was at minus 44.1 per cent. But despite people calling for his head on a plate, he has doggedly clung on, saying he wants to get on with “the rigorous pursuit of high standards”.

Williamson, 45, is nothing if not resilient. He bounds into his huge office at the Department for Education, surprisingly chipper considering the two years he’s had, talking about how he wants to “drive the reform agenda”. Drive is a word Williamson uses 10 times during our interview. He gesticulates and taps his feet with gusto, blue tie flying around and his hair flopping over his forehead. His accent is a curious hybrid, as if he has tried to teach himself to speak like Boris Johnson but can’t shake his Scarborough short vowels (which the Tories hope will appeal to their Red Wall voters). His bumbling speaking style has earned him comparisons to Frank Spencer. But today there are shades of Alan Partridge, particularly when he tells me about a picture of the Queen propped up on his windowsill. “That was a gift because there was a comment about how every other office had a picture of the Queen. Matt Hancock has her in a big circle… I do think we could get a more flattering one.” Realising what he has said, he backtracks: “Obviously every picture of the Queen is absolutely stunning but I’ve seen better than that.”

Williamson has come back from the brink before — returning to Cabinet in July 2019 only two months after being sacked as defence secretary for allegedly leaking confidential information about 5G (which he denies). Can he redeem himself a second time? Cynics say that the PM won’t jettison him because after his time as chief whip under Theresa May he knows where the bodies are buried; others suggest it is politically expedient for Johnson to use him as a human shield.

We have come to the conclusion that we were wrong about my tarantula’s gender. Cronus is actually female - a goddess. They are transitioning!

I had been hoping to meet Cronus, Williamson’s pet tarantula who he used to keep on his desk, reminding visitors that he was named after a ruthless killer. When I ask after him, Williamson, who describes himself as “an animal lover”, becomes animated. “We discovered that Cronus was wrongly gendered! They are transitioning. Male spiders tend to live up to five years but women live to 26 and Cronus is advancing well past their sixth birthday so we have come to the conclusion that Cronus is a goddess.” He breaks off to thank a colleague for bringing him a cup of milky tea: “Thank you so much, cheers for that, that’s divine.”

His relief is palpable when he says that this year’s exam results day passed with less drama (“I felt like it was my results day, that nervous knotted suspense”) and schools are back (“it absolutely lifts your heart when you see kids getting back to their routines”).

Is there anything that he would have done differently in the past year? “What you saw this year is what we learned,” he says, deploying all the skills he built in his previous career as a fireplace salesman to accentuate the positive. “Despite everything being done for the right reasons in the first year, it produced the wrong result for so many. Everything we are doing now is to make sure the school year runs with as little disruption as possible. I don’t want to see schools ever having to close their doors again. We will set out in the summer term what next year’s exams will look like. It is important that we get back into the rhythm of assessment. There isn’t a perfect form of assessment but exams are the best way.”

Can he really not remember his own A-level results, as he said on LBC? Surely he is not so old that he forgets things? “I am firmly in midlife,” he laughs. “I am yet to send my mother into the attic to drag out these grades. I must get her up there at some point.”

Despite everything being done for the right reasons in the first year, it produced the wrong result for so many. Everything we are doing now is to make sure the school year runs with as little disruption as possible.

Teachers have spoken of burn-out and a lack of advance warning, being told at the same time as the public about new measures. A lack of planning was a repeated criticism, including from this newspaper, and anxiety among pupils spiked as they waited to find out how their exams would be graded. He says mental health is a priority coming out of the pandemic, with the roll-out of mental health advisors in schools. But what is his relationship with teachers? “We are incredibly indebted to the enormous hard work of heads, teachers, Ofqual,” he says. His wife Joanne used to be a primary school teacher — and his brother teaches at a secondary school so he appreciates “the remarkable lengths teachers have gone to to deliver the best of education in the most extraordinary of times” and, contrary to reports of rifts with teaching unions, says he meets regularly with them and it is “civilized, constructive and productive”. He is waiting for the views of the chief medical officers as to whether children should be vaccinated but does say that “we are used to children being vaccinated at school, there is a tried-and-tested process of seeking consent. If there is conflict it is not for schools or teachers to be adjudicating”.

Plans for the next few months include “closing the gap between state and private schools as quickly as possible”. “Education is the single most important thing we can do to make that transformation in the levelling-up agenda. So much of that is about culture, high expectations, discipline. There is nothing more depressing than when you arrive at a school and the first thing a headteacher says is, you have to understand because of where our children come from this is what we can deliver. My argument is that whatever background they come from they have a right to the best in education.”

He continues: “I find it embarrassing that I am only the second comprehensively-educated Secretary of State for Education since the Second World War. I always think about my friends who I went to school, college and university with and I know for so many of them school is the thing that gives us that amazing boost.” In the Cabinet, Williamson is in a minority. Sixty-five per cent of ministers received a private education, including the Chancellor and PM. But Williamson diplomatically says that the Government understands the importance of funding education, even though cash is tight with the need for a National Insurance rise to support social care. When I ask if he backs this, Williamson lapses into Thick of It-style jargon: “What the Government sets out is working in terms of delivering. It is clear as we go to the spending review that we want to do more in education, this is the moment we secure additional funding and that is very much what we want. We have seen record levels of investment going into education but you would be rather surprised if as an Education Secretary I wasn’t wanting to draw more investment into education.” In June, the Government’s education recovery commissioner Sir Kevan Collins resigned over funding – he recommended spending in the region of £15 billion to help students recover education missed out during the pandemic. But Williamson’s team tell me they are on good terms with Sir Kevan and have allocated £1.4 billion.

Many of his critics have been high profile, including Marcus Rashford who called for an urgent review of free school meals. Has he met the footballer? “We met over Zoom and he seemed incredibly engaged, compassionate and charming but then he had to shoot off. I didn’t want to be the one that was holding him back from his training.” Williamson goes on to talk about how at one stage during the pandemic he was scouring the globe for laptops to give to children who were falling behind. Later Williamson’s team tell me he actually met the rugby player Maro Itoje, who campaigned to bridge the digital divide, not Rashford. Rashford’s spokesperson confirms that he has never had any direct communication with Williamson, although the minister did have a call with Itoje about equal access to education during the pandemic.

His eldest daughter, 16, did her GCSEs this year. She and her younger sister, 14, go to a state school in Williamson’s constituency, South Staffordshire. “I felt guilty about that to be honest,” he says. “You spend all this time, quite rightly in this job, talking about awarding and think to yourself how little bandwidth had been given to talking about my own daughter’s results.”

He did do some home schooling, joking that you’d go from Department for Education to home of education: “It’s true to say it’s a much more rigorous curriculum today than when I was at school. Thank goodness for a little bit of assistance from Professor Google.” His daughter was “put off” the Politics A-level because it would mean having to do an essay on her father. “I can understand that. But they have a healthy interest in my job.”

Williamson has had a rapid ascent. He was born in Scarborough to Labour-voting parents. His grandfathers, also Labour voters, influenced his political trajectory: “They believed in working hard to make a difference to their families. My dad’s dad was a printer, my mum’s was a quarryman and it is one of my greatest regrets that neither was alive when I became an MP.” Do his family vote Tory now? “We try to avoid that discussion,” he laughs nervously.

He was elected in 2010, serving as David Cameron’s parliamentary private secretary from 2013 until 2016. When Cameron quit, he switched allegiance to May and was appointed chief whip, despite never having held a ministerial role before. In 2017, he became defence secretary — in March 2018 he said Russia should “go away and shut up” and in 2019 he was sacked following the leak. But that didn’t deter him. He supported Brexit, and Johnson’s leadership bid, returning to the Cabinet as Education Secretary in July 2019. He seems to regard his term so far as a success, and enjoys his job despite everything. “In the Queen’s Speech, our post-16 agenda was the centrepiece, which was genuinely exciting. What keeps me going is the determination to make that difference.” As we wrap up he tells me again: “I want to deliver the best education for every child.” If he makes it through this week, he’s certainly got a lot of catching up to do.

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