Does Gavin Williamson mean what he says and does it matter?

With ministerial doublespeak over university participation reaching a peak, Charles Heymann argues that words matter, even if the message carriers don't.

Does Gavin Williamson mean what he says? A question to which the answer is no if you’re The Honourable Mr Justice Lewis. His High Court ruling last week concluded that Williamson never ordered the lockdown closure of 24,000 schools in England.

It was certainly the impression the Education Secretary left by telling the House of Commons on 18 March that “after schools shut their gates [two days later] they will remain closed until further notice” or if you read his press release headlined: “Schools, Colleges and Early Years Settings To Close”.

But the government argued in court we shouldn’t believe what we heard.

Williamson was actually “requesting”, not directing schools to close. He did not “impose any legal requirement on any school in England to close”, instead asking them to shut premises except to priority pupils. And despite millions of pupils being invited to stay away, he hadn’t suspended schools’ statutory obligation to educate them.

Schools were closed and not closed. But Mr Justice Lewis ruled it wasn’t worth our time discussing what Williamson meant or didn’t mean four months ago – because ministers now wanted all schools to be open, even if they had not shut. It is “neither necessary, nor helpful to spend time” debating “the precise meaning of certain of the statements made in relation to schools” in March the judge said.

Sophistry is nothing new in politics – but ministers’ rewriting of who-said-what-when during the pandemic has, at times, been brazen. What has been a requirement and what has been advice? What are guidelines and what is guidance? What has been unlawful and what hasn’t? The entire country spent weeks keeping two metres away from anyone else before the government’s chief scientist piped up in June that it was not “a scientific rule” but a “risk based assessment”. Thus airbrushing out what had been said by the entire Cabinet including, including the Education Secretary.

Why is this relevant?

Because words matter.

Gavin Williamson was absolutely desperate to generate headlines last week from the obligatory “major keynote on FE”.

So he and his special advisors plumped for scrapping the “target” for 50% for university attendance.

But is it possible to abandon a target which doesn’t exist? It’s never been Williamson’s policy. It hasn’t been one under his four predecessors. And it hasn’t been in any white paper, green paper or any policy document as far as I can see, in the last decade.

Williamson, to confuse matters, ended up not even saying exactly what he was billed to by the government’s press release of the speech after the final delivered text was heavily watered down.

The 50% target was, of course, former PM Tony Blair’s in 1999 – although what the Education Secretary said he said, wasn’t what he said. It wasn’t about university entrance, it was all of higher education. It wasn’t just 18-year-olds, it was “young adults” up to 30. And moreover, Blair said it so long ago, most first time graduates this year were barely born.

But it shows three key differences in rhetoric and reality of current post-18 education policy.

The Conservatives cannot agree when they came to power

No.10 is adamant that they have only been in power since last December, possibly since Boris won the party leadership 12 months ago. But you could equally choose 2010. Or 2015. Or even, 2017.

And because they aren’t sure, can we be sure? Is what was once policy, still policy?

What are we to make of a government where on the same day this month, one department put universities at the heart of industrial, R&D and innovation and another department slams them for ripping undergraduates off?

What can we read into Williamson being “shocked” to discover the impact of policies in the last decade was falling numbers of adults in education?

And is there anything in him sounding ambivalent about an open market and independent regulator, only 11 months after OfS’ powers came fully into force?

The speeches by Williamson and the universities minister show frustrations that they’ve been reduced to commentators – able to speak about higher education but not do anything about it.

Hence the hints and nudges at wanting more direct ministerial control on reforming admissions, on number controls and on teaching grants. And proposals in May for wider intervention powers to protect the sector’s “stability and integrity” were not an accident.

The Treasury has scrapped its policy of no bailouts – and is set to publish its new “restructuring regime” in the next ten days, where direct finance will come with demanding conditions.

So perhaps we’ll see OfS acting less like a regulator and more like an executive agency. Or maybe not.

Just because you say it, doesn’t mean you can do it

Policymaking is messy, complex and complicated. Politicians for decades have pledged to break the divide between vocational and academic education. Yet as was argued on Wonkhe last year on the eve of Augar, we end up back at square one.

Ministers for decades have believed they’re a headline away from triumph. That through sheer force of personality they can make things happen. That they can go where their predecessors couldn’t.

But we’re still locked into the same old debates about the same old issues: social care; NHS; tax; growth; jobs; poverty; industry; productivity; welfare; pensions; energy; devolution; police; criminal justice; inequality, discrimination; early years; and schools.

So let’s take the Education’s Secretary’s commitment to “The Forgotten 50%” with a pinch of salt. It’s not credible to make promises to English colleges, two weeks after failing to produce a single penny of catch up funding for 16-to-18 year-olds this September.

Williamson may promise a radical White Paper in September but the government has been promising big reform for years. And to the frustration of civil servants, ministers demanded policies to be developed, then left them in in-trays: Augar, still mouldering away; defunding Level 3 qualifications, including many BTECs; on overhauling higher technical education; on FE college governance, structure and legislation; and a £2.5bn National Skills Fund.

It’s difficult for Williamson to completely shirk responsibility for England being no closer to a coherent post-18 system of professional, technical and academic education over the last decade. We’ve still got a college and adult education system starved of investment; a university financial model under pressure; a flawed apprenticeships funding model; and a politically toxic tuition fees and loan system.

All the words in the world, don’t alter the facts

The idea that the government has the capacity and capability to create a “world class, German-style further education system” is for the birds.

The UK’s growth has dropped off a cliff. Mass unemployment looms as does a no-deal Brexit. A brutal spending review lies ahead. The pandemic threat stays with us. The lockdown threatens opening up education inequalities – income, race, social, geographic and SEND. Millions of students in schools, colleges and HE will not have been on campuses for six months by September.

Time will tell if this is a lost generation but it’s fanciful to imagine that the government can rescue, recover and rebuild the entire education sector on the cheap. And the Treasury is still to make up for the deep real-terms cuts since the last recession, let alone provide new investment.

Which comes back to Williamson. This is not a man with a new vision, ideas or knowledge. It’s deeply depressing to read his Gradgrindian belief in the purpose of education being “to give people the skills to get a good and meaningful job”.

He’s the fourth Education Secretary in the last six years, with an average of 612 days in office since Michael Gove was sacked from DfE in 2014. That means if he’s lucky, Williamson may last until 27th March next year. But he could be out the door within weeks.

No.10 has already lined him up as a fall guy for primary school sites not fully opening in England before the summer holidays – and has set him up to fail if all school pupils are not back in two months. Although, of course, he never had powers to open or close them in the first place.

Which leaves us asking: does it really matter what he says?

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