There are limits to how you can fiddle the science. Only yesterday Matt Hancock had come up with the brilliant idea that the reproduction rate – the R rate – didn’t much matter anyway after it had stubbornly refused to drop from between 0.7 and 0.9. Today, though, Gavin Williamson had to bow to the inevitable. No matter how he looked at it 2 metres was never going to be less than 2 metres. Not even if, as Jacob Rees-Mogg had suggested, you try turning it into feet and inches.
The education secretary had even pleaded with his scientific advisers, begging them to say that 2 metres were actually only 1 metre. Or at a push 1.5 metres. But after months of finding their work being corrupted by the government to suit its own ends, the scientists dug their heels in. The social-distancing requirement would still be set at 2 metres.
On a few occasions in the past, Williamson has given flashes of the panache that won him fireplace salesman of the year in two consecutive years in 2006 and 2007, but today he was very much the bullied chemistry supply teacher as he had to explain to the Commons that he had badly miscalculated how quickly some children would be returning to school. His promise that all primary school children would get at least some time in school before the summer holidays had been an error.
When Gavin had done the maths, he had been certain he could get at least 30 children into a classroom; but that was before he had learned that it wasn’t practical to suspend at least half the class from the ceiling in order for all the children to maintain a safe social distance from each other. So now he was having to work on the basis of just 15 children at most in any one classroom at any given time, which meant that at least half the rest of the kids would have to stay at home. Which rather put the kibosh on the rest of the summer term for all those year groups not in the first wave of returnees. Not that all those who had been due to restart school the previous week had done so, but that was another story …
Let’s deconstruct the extent of Gavin’s idiocy a little further. Donald Rumsfeld struggled with both the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. The education secretary failed to even get to grips with the known knowns. Williamson knew back in March that there was a coronavirus pandemic that had caused all schools to close. He knew that meant that all children would have to be home-schooled after a fashion and that the vulnerable and less well-off would be likely to fall behind their peers. Gavin also knew that at some point the lockdown measures would be eased gradually. The only thing he didn’t know was that 2 metres could not be rounded down to 3ft. Which is the one thing that almost every primary school-aged kid did know.
So how did the education secretary use the two-and-a-half months to prepare for schools reopening? By doing next to nothing. All Ga had to say for himself was that he would be following the science, he hoped more kids would get back to school once teachers had had more time to prepare and that with any luck all schools would be fully open again by September. Though nobody should bank on it.
The shadow education secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, was almost lost for words in reply. Where to start? An apology to the teaching unions who the government had blamed last week for so many schools failing to open on time for the three years groups due back. Headteachers had been screaming about the difficulties of social distancing for weeks but no one had listened. Even parents had been more clued up than the department of education and had refused to allow their kids back until they were sure it was safe.
But we were where we were, so Long-Bailey did try to offer some useful tips on what to do next. More localised support for children whose schools might be locked down again if the R rate went above 1 in their areas. A full programme of summer schools, free access to the internet, free school meals over the summer holidays. Anything to reduce the inevitable growth in inequality that six months and more of missed formal education would bring about.
A few sycophantic stooges, such as Tory Danny Kruger, apart, MPs from all sides piled in. Just how had the education secretary let things get this bad? This wasn’t just bad management, it was a national humiliation that would affect kids for years to come. Ga looked more crest-fallen than apologetic. The natural response of someone who still wasn’t quite aware of just how awful things really were.
There would be some kind of summer school but he probably wouldn’t be able to say what exactly until the autumn. He wouldn’t be offering free school meals because it would be good for kids to either lose weight or learn useful shoplifting skills. And exams would definitely be taking place next summer regardless of how much schooling anyone had got. The GCSE maths syllabus would include a question on what percentage of children could be expected to know stuff they hadn’t been taught.
But all was not lost, Gavin said desperately. He had already handed out 100,000 free laptops and was planning to dole out another 230,000 in the coming months by which time it would hopefully be too late for some kids to catch up on lessons they had missed. “That’s great,” said Lib Dem Layla Moran. But the chair of the education select committee had already pointed out there were 700,000 children with no access to laptops. So by her reckoning that still left 370,000 kids education-free.
Ga opened and closed his mouth, before saying nothing. Moran just shook her head. She was wasting her breath. Given that the education secretary can barely count to two, it was expecting far too much of him to cope with subtracting large numbers.