Nineteen minutes, by my watch, was the length of the gap between Boris Johnson announcing new free courses for people with no skills and the first public appearance in more than three weeks of the education secretary Gavin Williamson.
It was nice to see him back, in a way. For a while there, one had to suspect he was one of the many millions whose job had become “no longer viable” but here he was, at the despatch box of the House of Commons, as viable as ever before.
He’d spent the summer on the furlough scheme, of course, which meant he’d had no choice but to sit out the A Level results fiasco, barring a quick trip to the BBC Breakfast studio where he explained how none of it was his fault. Which was a stroke of good luck, really, because the head of the exams regulator and the chief civil servant in the Department for Education found they had been rendered no longer viable at the end of it.
But not Gavin. Now he’s back in work, his boss, the prime minister, will also get the £1,000 job retention bonus which can hardly have come at a better time for a man whose “friends” cannot stop telling journalists of his horrendous struggle to survive on a mere £175,000 a year.
In fact, we understand the education secretary is one of the first people to have been enrolled on the chancellor’s new Job Support Scheme, where he will be expected to work 33 per cent of his normal hours, before being free to go back home and carry on instagramming pictures of skips.
It did mean that this solitary hour at the despatch box is likely to mark the entirety of the contribution made by the country’s actual education secretary to the mushrooming Covid-19 universities crisis, which has the potential to be, and one does not say this lightly, the biggest fiasco so far.
It’s not merely that thousands of students have been told to start their courses, only to then find themselves banned from pubs, or having to quarantine in halls of residence with precious little access to basic provisions, but plenty of access to large numbers of news reports suggesting they won’t be allowed to go home and see their families at Christmas, rendering their once in a lifetime university experience remarkably similar, if not technically worse, than the conditions in many low-risk prisons.
We’ll return to Mr Williamson shortly but first there was the prime minister’s “announcement” to listen to. Johnson has decided that “now is the time” to end this country’s de facto learning apartheid between vocational and academic education. He is right, technically, that “now” is the time. If you ask someone what the time is, they will always say “now”. And the time to end this country’s curious dysfunctional skills-avoiding education system has been “now” for at least the last 30 years, which is why GNVQs have begat BTECs have begat T Levels and on and on and endlessly on, to a place where no new prime minister can ever go more than a few months without re-reforming technical education.
If there are any free courses to enroll on, best do so now, as they are unlikely to still exist by the time they’re finished. Obviously you’ll have to take them online while incarcerated in a tower block in a university town, sobbing in silence to yourself about how it wasn’t meant to be like this. But, you know, needs must.
This is hard, of course, but the point is that it was also all eminently foreseeable. The education secretary has been warned about all of this. Literally thousands of university staff and lecturers have been saying for months exactly what will happen, which now has happened, and many more universities haven’t even got started yet.
“We believe universities are very well prepared to handle any outbreaks that arise,” was all Mr Williamson had to say on the matter, a claim that has been demonstrably false for weeks.
It would appear to be a matter of certainty that Mr Williamson doesn’t read any of the briefs that are handed to him. It is hard to believe he even watches the news. Would you, though, if you were him?
Still, as the prime minister made clear, it is never too late to learn new skills. Or in his education secretary’s case, absolutely any at all.