Embattled education secretary Gavin Williamson has defended a holiday he took just before the A-levels crisis erupted.
Mr Williamson said he had been in Scarborough days before this year’s results were released, but insisted he had been in constant contact with his department.
The education secretary is under increasing pressure from his own MPs to ensure the planned reopening of schools for the first time in five months next week goes smoothly.
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Boris Johnson has pledged that all children will be back in the classroom from the start of September.
The prime minister has said the move is crucial both to the wellbeing of pupils and to allow the UK economy to bounce back from the coronavirus crisis.
But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer warned on Sunday that the prime minister’s flagship schools commitment was “at risk” after weeks of chaos over education.
Mr Williamson has also been accused of cancelling a critical meeting with education leaders in the run-up to the results fiasco that saw thousands of pupils’ results downgraded.
The education secretary faced calls to resign after he was forced to perform a U-turn and raise hundreds of thousands of A-level and GCSE grades.
As the crisis raged, Mr Williamson also found time to “like” photographs posted by a junior education minister, Gillian Keegan, of her summer holiday in the French Alps.
Today Mr Williamson tweeted: “I cancelled our family holiday abroad this year to focus on the challenges Covid-19 created for the education sector. Over the summer, I went to see family in Scarborough for the first time since lockdown, and while there I was in constant communication with the department.”
But he faced mounting pressure over schools after Sit Keir said: “I want to see children back at school next month, and I expect the prime minister to deliver on that commitment. However, the commitment is now at serious risk after a week of chaos, confusion and incompetence from the government.”
“Ministers should have spent the summer implementing a national plan to get all children back to school. Instead, the last two weeks have been wasted clearing up a mess of the government’s own making over exam results.”
Ministers did receive a boost when Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, today backed the school reopening plans.
However, he and other chief medical officers around the UK warned that it was “possible that opening schools will provide enough upward pressure on R that it goes above 1 having previously been below it, at least in some local areas”.
“This will require local action and could mean societal choices that weigh up the implications of imposing limitations on different parts of the community and the economy,” they added.
Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the teachers union NASUWT, said the medical officer’s statement showed the “critical importance” of safe working practices in schools including ensuring social distancing and hand-washing measures were in place.
He added: “Today’s statement adds weight to the prime minister’s message that there is a moral duty to reopen schools and that schools must reopen safely.”
One senior Tory MP said Mr Williamson had lost the trust of his officials and could no longer serve as an effective cabinet minister.
Sir Bernard Jenkin, who chairs the powerful Commons Liaison Committee, told The Observer: “The deal between ministers and officials is that officials give their best advice and ministers get to make decisions. This means that when something goes wrong ministers take the blame, and that is the reason why officials will be free to speak and give the best advice. But if officials feel they are going to be blamed in public they will not give the best advice to ministers.
“In the Gavin Williamson case, there has been briefing against the permanent secretary (at the Department for Education) and Ofqual. This is not likely to engage enthusiastic cooperation from the department and it permanently disables Gavin Williamson as secretary of state because there will have been a complete breakdown of trust.”