British education minister admits confusion over black sportsmen

Gavin Williamson claimed he had spoken to footballer Marcus Rashford after conversation with rugby star Maro Itoje

Marcus Rashford, left, and Maro Itoje. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said he had met England footballer Rashford online when he had in fact spoken with rugby player Itoje. PA

Britain’s Education Secretary on Wednesday said he had made a “genuine mistake” by wrongly identifying two black sportsmen known for their efforts in demanding the government do more for poor children.

Gavin Williamson, who has faced widespread criticism for his performance during the coronavirus pandemic, told London’s Evening Standard he had spoken to Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford on Zoom, the video-conferencing software.

Shortly after, Mr Williamson's advisers told the same newspaper he had spoken to Saracens rugby player Maro Itoje.

Both Rashford and Itoje have used their celebrity status to campaign for more help for disadvantaged children during the pandemic, when schools closed for long periods and inequality became worse.

Rashford, 23, spearheaded a campaign against child poverty, which convinced the British government to restore free school lunches for thousands of poor children.

Itoje, 26, has sought to help tackle a shortage of laptops in schools, which has left many young people in Britain from poor backgrounds at a disadvantage in education.

“Towards the end of a wide-ranging interview in which I talked about both the laptops and school meals campaigns, I conflated the issues and made a genuine mistake,” Mr Williamson said.

“I have huge respect for both Marcus Rashford and Maro Itoje, who run effective and inspiring campaigns.”

There is speculation that Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson will demote Mr Williamson as part of a government reshuffle.

Neither Rashford nor Itoje made much of the error, both choosing humour in response.

Rashford, who is from Manchester, wrote in a tweet alongside a tears of laughter emoji: “Accent could have been a giveaway.”

Itoje, who is a Londoner, said on Twitter that as a result of recent speculation he thought it necessary to confirm he was not Rashford.

Not everyone was amused. David Lammy, justice spokesman for the opposition Labour Party, called Mr Williamson’s mistake “appalling”.

“You must be the most ignorant, clueless and incapable education secretary in the UK’s history,” he wrote on Twitter.

Updated: September 09, 2021, 8:28 AM