And lo we are beholden to type out some words that Gavin Williamson has said. Gavin Williamson has called for “more discipline” in schools. There are, apparently, still some people out there still capable, for reasons that are very much unclear, of getting annoyed by what Gavin Williamson says.
The secretary of state for education calling for more discipline in schools is very much the same as his having once told Russia to “shut up and go away”. Russia did not shut up. It did not go away. And nor will his call for more discipline in schools make any difference at all, because there is not a single solitary teacher, pupil or indeed person anywhere in the country, with the possible but by no means certain exception of his parents’ house, who has any respect for him whatsoever.
In some ways it is especially unfortunate. Gavin Williamson has for a long time resembled the notorious supply teacher present in every school. The one of whom the mere sight out of the classroom window, approaching the door, would be the cue for instantaneous pandemonium, and the absolute certain knowledge that for the next blissful 35 minutes of total chaos, no work would be getting done at all.
Discipline in schools is no bad thing. It is the by-product of respect. It is not something that can come to pass simply because it has been called for by a man without sufficient personal gravitas to prevent Richard Madeley terminating an interview with them live on air, to the bemusement of a passing elephant.
What Gavin Williamson does, however, is different to what Gavin Williamson says. What Gavin Williamson does, does matter. And it matters because he doesn’t actually do anything. Did he, for example, take any notice of the multiple warnings that his A-Level results algorithm was not fit for purpose, and would lead to quite possibly the single greatest governmental fiasco of modern times? No he didn’t, and for this other people had to be sacked.
Respect is not something that can be commanded by someone who can think of no better way than to mask his staggering shortcomings than to shift the blame for them on to parents. If there is a lack of discipline in returning schools and, to be clear, there is precisely zero evidence that is the case, then it can only be the parents’ fault, can’t it? A year at home, out of the reaches of their teachers and suddenly they’ve all gone feral, apparently. That’ll be the parents’ fault, then.
It will presumably have been the parents’ fault, too, when they got their children ready to return to school in January, only for their schools to be shut down again after precisely one morning’s lessons, and for no greater reason than Gavin Williamson is, by a jaw-dropping margin, the least capable person ever to hold his office.
We must also wonder at the precise nature of the discipline required. Williamson, naturally, offers some examples of his own, such as a few months ago, when his department threatened legal action against a school that had closed down for the safety of its own staff and pupils, before shutting them all down two weeks later anyway.
Other holes exist in the Williamson thesis, too. It tends to be taken as a given that discipline is character building but the evidence suggests otherwise. Anyone who’s ever had to mete out any kind of punishment to a naughty child knows that character is not so much built in these moments as revealed. When they’re utterly bang to rights, when the evidence against them is overwhelming, only the truest, most complete weasel will fail to just come clean, opting instead for the vomit-inducing tactic of protesting their innocence by swearing on the lives of various family members. Only the likes of, say, Gavin Williamson would ever do such a thing, as he did with such towering stature in the moments after being sacked from the cabinet for endangering national security. Not that it held him back.
The pandemic has in many ways let the likes of Williamson off the hook. He is the archetypal personification of the worst, most incompetent government the country has ever had, yet the least capable government has also faced the very hardest challenges.
It has been like watching a dog gamely trying to read ancient Greek poetry, inadvertently concealing the certain fact that if you asked it to fetch a stick or merely not to eat its own excrement it couldn’t do that, either.
And it is also why only the crassest, most simplistic, most pointless interventions are the ones he can manage. Of course, nobody is listening to him, but the evidence suggests that will not be sufficient to make him go away.