The Prime Minister is determined to keep Gavin Williamson as Education Secretary despite backbench claims that he has lost the confidence of the teaching profession and should go over the exams debacle, Downing Street indicated.
Some Tory MPs, who led a full scale rebellion yesterday over the grading crisis, said Mr Williamson’s position was not “tenable” after failing to heed the warnings and tackle the unfolding crisis earlier.
One senior backbencher said: “Surely he could have seen this train rumbling down the track from a mile off. They have had the grades sitting there for weeks. After the mess in Scotland there really was no excuse not to act. His position is not tenable.”
However, a Number Ten spokesman, asked if the Prime Minister had confidence in Mr Williamson, said: “Yes, the whole Government has been working hard to come up with the fairest possible system for pupils.”
Despite saying it was “beyond baffling” that Mr Williamson would stay on, several MPs said they thought he would survive for fear of making a “very effective enemy” who was “much better as a fixer or schemer than a minister.”
A snap Yougov poll of nearly 2,400 adults found the public believed by a two to one majority that Mr Williamson should resign after announcing the u-turn to allow pupils’ grades to be determined by their teachers’ predictions.
Forty per cent believed he should resign against 21 per cent who said he should remain as Education Secretary; 39 per cent said they don’t know. Some 75 per cent of Britons said the affair had been handled badly by the Government.
The u-turn came after at least 30 Tory MPs spoke out at the damage being caused by the regulator Ofqual’s use of an algorithm to determine tens of thousands of students’ grades. Many had been downgraded and denied places at their chosen universities.
Asked if Mr Williamson could survive, one senior backbencher said: “All you can say is that the date of the A-levels and GCSEs announcement has been known for at least a year and then throughout the period of the coronavirus panic. There really isn’t any excuse.”
Another backbencher said: “His handling has been so inept I almost feel sorry for him.”
Another MP said that “lots of colleagues are frankly furious about his handling of the situation.”
However, a former Cabinet minister said that Dominic Cummings may be disappointed to find out that Mr Williamson “isn’t a nodding dog, he’s a nastly little terrier with a bite”.
“If you bend down he’ll bite your hand. He’s definitely a ‘get even’ guy,” the MP added. “I wouldn’t bank on his going.
“Dom didn’t resign himself when he broke lockdown rules and instead made an arrogant statement. He has no regard for the press and you’ll probably find the blame will shift to the media.
“I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he’s saved. He totally screwed up over returning to school, he’s screwed up over this. Really he should have gone a long time ago.”
MPs are concerned at the delay in getting to grips with the crisis after Scotland had suffered a mirror image debacle, for which its Government apologised and reinstated teacher predicted grades. Simon Hoare, a committee chair, said it was “beyond a joke” and smacked of “naive incompetence.”
Another warned that it had seriously undermined ministers’ reputation for competent Government. “You’ve had a series of these screw ups in recent months and it all comes from a rigid control of Downing Street. We have an administration that seeks obedience over competency,” said a backbencher.
There will also be worries that it has damaged the confidence of schools and teachers in Mr Williamson’s stewardship. Former Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw, warned yesterday morning that the education secretary was “losing the dressing room.”
“There has to be political responsibility, like all things at the end of the day, and somebody has to carry the can, the politicians, the political leaders have to carry the can,” said Sir Michael.
“And the great danger for Gavin Williamson at the moment is that he is losing confidence, he is losing the confidence of headteachers around the country who have seen this happen.
“He hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory over the pandemic period with all sorts of changes of direction – saying that primary schools would be open when they obviously couldn’t be under the social distancing rules, saying every poor child would receive a laptop and obviously that didn’t happen, the school meals voucher system wasn’t working.
“And so he’s losing the dressing room, if you like. Headteachers have got to feel confident that they are being well-led by the Department for Education who are holding this agency, Ofqual, to account.”