Dear Gavin Williamson, here’s some helpful reading for another nice mess | Michael Rosen


Dear Gavin Williamson,

I’ve been scrabbling around looking for some helpful reading for you. This is because for the first time in your disastrous reign as secretary of state I’ve had a twinge of sympathy for you. I had thought there couldn’t be a more chaotic scenario than the great algorithm mess of yesteryear, but then this year parents like me have watched with incredulity the rollout of GCSE exams that weren’t exams.

Of course they weren’t. They were “assessments”. Students sat in silence answering exam questions, often taken from previous years’ GCSEs, but they weren’t exams. Apparently. The odd thing about this was that I have a distant memory of Boris Johnson saying something about how this year there would be no exams, or as he put it, it’s “not possible or fair for all exams to go ahead this summer as normal”.

Perhaps that “as normal” tagged on the end was his get-out phrase. This would allow our offspring to have abnormal exams instead, I suppose. Other than that, many of the exams – sorry, I mean “assessments” – have been very, very normal. Apologies if this sounds confusing but I suspect you’ve been confused too.

Even so, you must have been mightily relieved that your boss took the rap for this year’s muddle being announced so late. He said in January: “I completely understand the inconvenience and distress this late change will cause millions of parents and pupils up and down the country.” Heaven knows, you’d had enough rage and scorn poured on your head without having to be blamed for that particular screw-up as well.

I wonder if you’ll be so lucky this time round, as now we have the sorry mess over “catch-up” for children’s lost education during lockdowns. I can think of plenty wrong with the very notion of catch-up but you’ve managed to turn my misgivings into grim laughter.

Let me explain. Sometimes those of us who follow the news (rather than make it) get our sequencing wrong. I had thought you’d said an extended day would happen but then later you’d discovered this idea was sunk by the announcement that there would not be enough money to implement it.

To my amazement, it was the other way round. You actually went on TV in the full knowledge that all you had to spend on catch-up was about £50 per pupil a year and talked of some schools having a 2.45pm going home time, which you followed up with: “I do question as to whether that is too early.” In that loose phrase, you showed us that you and your colleagues are still cooking up ways of extending the school day, even though the money’s not there to do it.

If at any time in this episode you wondered whether you might meet a smidgeon of difficulty winning the cooperation of classroom teachers, headteachers and indeed your own catch-up tsar, you need be in no doubt now. I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a united roar of disapproval and contempt hit a secretary of state for education.

This explains my twinge of sympathy for you. So with that twinge still twingeing, I wondered: is there something you could read that would help you through this crisis? A story where the hero goofs up, faces problems, but then someone in the story says something helpful to our fallen hero? And it would be this line that could in turn help you.

The Odyssey, perhaps? Odysseus goofs up (annoying the sea god was never going to be a good move) and then he gets himself and his gang into one or two tricky situations. But I couldn’t find that one helpful line for you, the line that could inspire you or give you an insight into where you’re at, what you say and how you say it. And then I noticed that the word “mess” kept rising in my mind. Who is it who talks about a mess, I wondered?

Wikipedia proved to be more helpful than Homer: “Laurel and Hardy’s best-known catchphrase is: ‘Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.’”

Of course! Not The Odyssey but Laurel and Hardy. And what about that helpful line? The one line that could give you an insight into your situation; one of those moments in a story or drama where we recognise ourselves? I read on … see what you think:

Wikipedia says: “Laurel’s frequent, iconic response was to start to cry, pull his hair up, exclaim ‘Well, I couldn’t help it …’, then whimper and speak gibberish.”

I’ll leave that with you.

Yours, Michael Rosen.



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