Gavin Williamson knighthood: why was ex-education secretary knighted by Boris Johnson - and will he be a sir?

Opposition MPs and teachers have shared their shock at the decision to give Gavin Williamson a knighthood

Gavin Williamson, who was twice sacked as a Cabinet minister and oversaw the exams fiasco during the Covid pandemic, has been given a knighthood by Boris Johnson.

Downing Street said that the Queen has approved the honour for the Tory MP, who was widely criticised for a series of errors as education secretary.

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Teachers have since expressed their “shock” and “surprise” over the news - with one head adding “it’s a classic example of being promoted upwards for failure.”

It means that now he will be given the title of sir.

So, why is Gavin Williamson’s knighthood controversial? Here’s all you need to know.

The Queen has approved a knighthood for the former education secretary, Downing Street said (image: PA)

Why is Gavin Williamson being knighted now? 

It is understood the knighthood has been given to the 45-year-old who helped run Mr Johnson’s successful 2019 campaign to succeed Theresa May as Tory leader on the basis of his political and public service.

But, usually the lists of who’s received honours are published at New Year and on the Queen’s official birthday in June.

So, Gavin Williamson’s knighthood has come at an unusual time.

Asked why the knighthood was being announced now and not part of an honours list, No 10 said it was a political appointment by the Conservative Party.

A Downing Street statement said: “The Queen has been pleased to approve that the honour of knighthood be conferred upon the Rt Hon Gavin Williamson CBE MP.”

Why is Gavin Williamson’s knighthood controversial?

The Prime Minister sacked Mr Williamson from education secretary in September 2021 - and he was previously dumped as defence secretary following an inquiry into a leak from the National Security Council.

Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting tweeted: “Reward for failure. Shameless.”

He clung on as education secretary for more than two years despite being battered by repeated calls for his resignation.

His handling of disruption to schools during the height of the pandemic and the grading of GCSEs and A-levels after exams were cancelled was widely seen as disastrous.

He was also criticised for confusing free school meals campaigning footballer Marcus Rashford with England rugby star Maro Itoje. Both men are black.

Marcus Rashford of Manchester United in action (image: Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)

Was he involved in Sue Gray’s inquiry? 

A gathering held in the education department under his watch during Covid restrictions was investigated by senior civil servant Sue Gray, but was ultimately not part of the police inquiry.

Mr Williamson, the MP for South Staffordshire, reportedly gave a short speech at the event on December 10 2020, while London was under Tier 2 measures banning social mixing between households.

Was Gavin Williamson defence secretary? 

Mr Williamson was rewarded with the role as education secretary by the Prime Minister in July 2019 despite being sacked as defence secretary by Mrs May earlier that year.

That firing came following an inquiry into the leak of information from a security council meeting about Chinese telecoms firm Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s 5G mobile network. Mr Williamson denied being the source of the leak.

He was previously Mrs May’s chief whip, and in that period was best known in Westminster for keeping a pet tarantula named Cronus on his desk and he has acquired the nickname Private Pike, after the hapless Dad’s Army character.

Former defence secretary Gavin Williamson and Britain’s chief of the defence staff general Nick Carter arrive at 10 Downing Street in 2019. (Photo by Daniel Leal / AFP/Getty)

What has the reaction been to Gavin Williamson’s knighthood?

Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman Munira Wilson said: “The only award Gavin Williamson should be given is the one for worst education secretary in history.

“People across the country will be outraged at this reward for his abysmal failures.

“It is an insult to every child, parent and teacher who struggled through Covid against the odds. It shows this government only cares about those at the top.”

Labour’s shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said: “Gavin Williamson left children to go hungry, created two years of complete chaos over exams and failed to get laptops out to kids struggling to learn during lockdowns.

“His record is astonishing and disgraceful.

“This shows utter contempt for the challenges children and education staff have faced during the pandemic.”

Bridget Phillipson, shadow secretary of state for education, said Gavin Williamson “created two years of complete chaos over exams” during the pandemic (image: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said headteachers would be “surprised” to learn the news.

He added that the challenges of the pandemic and their impact on education would have been “challenging for any education secretary, and this needs to be recognised.”

“But the experience of schools and colleges of Mr Williamson during his tenure as education secretary was one of endless muddle, inevitable U-turns, and even threats of legal action to override local decisions,” he said.

“This was not all Mr Williamson’s fault.

“The hand of Downing Street was detectable amidst the chaos too.”

“However, many parents will share our surprise that his record in this role warrants the conferring of a knighthood.”

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