Gavin Williamson was at the seaside as exam fiasco unfolded

Gavin Williamson cancelled a crucial meeting to go on holiday the week before the A-level exams fiasco, raising fresh questions about the future of the embattled education secretary.

Three officials say Williamson was away in the week beginning August 3 in the seaside town of Scarborough, where he has family — when the exams chaos was beginning to unfold in Scotland.

During that time he did not schedule a regular get-together with school leaders to discuss the return of children to school in September, which Boris Johnson has described as a “national priority”.

Williamson’s holiday ended days before thousands of teenagers missed out on university places because they were given the wrong A-level results on August 13.

His absence may help to explain why the education secretary later claimed that he was unaware of flaws in the algorithm which had led to results being downgraded.

A senior Whitehall source said it was “surprising” that the education secretary was “missing in action” when he and the regulator, Ofqual, had been warned at least one month before about flaws in the moderating system.

Senior government sources say Williamson did join Zoom calls with Johnson and other ministers while he was away. “He was working, to be fair to him,” one senior figure said. But a senior Tory backbencher said: “It’s OK to go on holiday as long as you have done your homework first. Colleagues understand if you get run over by a bus that comes around the corner and surprises you. Williamson was run over by a bus that everyone could see coming miles away.”

With the September deadline to reopen schools looming, the chief medical officers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and all their deputies today publish an open letter to parents spelling out why children should return to the classroom. They declare:
● The chances of children dying from Covid-19 are “exceptionally small” and the chances of them needing to stay in hospital are “less than a 10th” of the rate for the general population
● The fatality rate for those aged between 5 and 14 is estimated at 14 per million, “lower than for most seasonal flu infections”
● School attendance is “very important” for children and they face the “certainty of long-term harm” to “physical and mental health” if they stay away
● There is “clear evidence” that the great majority of children and teenagers who catch Covid-19 “have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all”
● Primary school children have a “significantly lower rate of infection than adults” and transmission from children to adults is “relatively rare” compared with transmission from adults
● Teachers are “not at increased risk of dying” compared with workers in other jobs.

The medics conclude that keeping schools open could drive the reproduction number, the R rate, over 1, the point at which the disease spreads quickly — and that this will mean “societal choices” to impose other restrictions.

In an interview broadcast today, Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said that could mean closing pubs and restaurants if they are the cause of rising infections: “If it was shops in a particular area we would need to look at shops, if it was hospitality, we would need to look at hospitality.”

The letter is a challenge to the teaching unions, which continue to insist that not all schools will be Covid-safe. Some heads are proposing a rota system with pupils learning online at home half the time to allow for social distancing.

The exams fiasco has sparked a blame game. Sources say the prime minister told Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, to get rid of Jonathan Slater, senior mandarin at the education department, two weeks ago. Slater is expected to get a six-figure payoff.

Senior sources condemned a “lack of grip” in the department and expressed concerns only about one in 100 staff were working from the Westminster office at a time of crisis. Susan Acland-Hood, chief executive of the Courts and Tribunals Service, has been seconded to the Department for Education for six weeks to boost the team.

In an article for The Sunday Times website, Williamson admits that the chaos caused by the pandemic has been “an especially heavy weight for young shoulders to carry. I particularly recognise the level of distress and concern the approach of providing exam results this year has caused some students . . . I do not diminish the strength of feeling about this.”

The disclosure of details about Williamson’s holiday will contribute to the view that his job is on the line if schools do not return in full and on time.

Williamson, a father of two, grew up in Scarborough, North Yorkshire’s favourite family seaside resort. His mother still lives there.

Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, said: “Despite receiving warnings weeks ago about problems in the grading system, Gavin Williamson took time off for his holidays only days before results were due, rather than being at his desk doing all he could to support young people.

“His repeated incompetence means that he has failed hundreds of thousands of families across the country and will have undermined parents’ confidence in the government as families and teachers prepare for school reopening next month.’’

Over the next few days universities will try to place 15,000 out of 60,000 students whose grades went up as a result of the A-levels fiasco. Many, including scores of medical students, will have to defer until next year because courses are now full.

Sixth-form head teachers say they have been flooded by thousands more pupils who have been given top GCSE grades and are having to try to persuade some to move to less popular A-level courses.

One college in Hampshire is expecting a year group of 4,000, compared with 3,000 last year, and is converting offices into classrooms to make space.

Teenagers who sat BTec exams for vocational qualifications are still waiting for their results because they now have to be regraded in line with A-levels and GCSEs.

The education department declined to comment on Williamson’s diary.

The Sunday Time