A union chief has launched a stinging attack on Gavin Williamson over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Robin Bevan, the president of the National Education Union (NEU), likened the Education Secretary to the fictional character of Pinocchio as he described him as “wooden-headed”, “limp” and “spineless”.

Mr Bevan, head of Southend High School for Boys in Essex, accused the minister of repeating a “lie” that exams are the best form of assessment.

In a speech to the NEU’s virtual annual conference, the president of the UK’s largest teaching union called for “a rethink” of assessment.

Addressing Mr Williamson’s political decisions over the past year, Mr Bevan said: “Throughout recent months we have seen that the Secretary of State is indeed wooden-headed, is indeed a puppet, is limp and spineless.”

He criticised the Education Secretary for threatening to take legal action against Greenwich council if it failed to keep its schools open to all pupils until the end of term in December, despite a rise in Covid cases across the capital.

The NEU chief also condemned Mr Williamson for telling parents in January that they could report schools to Ofsted if they were unhappy with their child’s remote learning provision just days after schools were told they had to close.

Mr Bevan added: “Pinocchio of course also has that characteristic of the nose that grows with every lie that is told and there is one lie that really must be challenged, repeated over and over again by our Secretary of State.

“The lie that exams are the best and fairest way for young people to show what they know and can do.

“And here, I’m not talking about his incessant and unrelenting desire to see exams take place this year.

“I’m talking generally.

“It takes a particular level of ignorance to make that statement.”

Teachers in England will decide pupils’ GCSE and A-level grades this summer after exams were cancelled for the second year in a row amid the pandemic.

The changes to assessment have triggered calls across the sector for GCSEs to be reformed post-Covid.

But last month, Mr Williamson told heads that the Government was going to keep GCSEs, adding that the exams will be here “for an awful lot longer”.

Addressing the conference on Thursday, Mr Bevan warned that not everything is best assessed in an examination under timed conditions and he argued that there are also “issues of reliability”.

He said: “High-quality assessment doesn’t depend on performance on the day, doesn’t depend on the marker you’re assigned to, doesn’t depend on the selection of questions that just happen to appear on the paper.

“High quality assessment would have the same outcome with the same competence of the individual being assessed.

“It’s time to re-think assessment.

“It’s time to put that lie in the bin.

“Exams are not the best, exclusive, fairest way for young people to show what they know and can do.”

During the NEU’s annual conference, delegates passed a motion calling for a campaign for all colleges and schools to publish their exam results – and pupils disciplined and excluded data – based on protected characteristics.

Delegates – which voted to campaign “for a moratorium” on school exclusions in the wake of the pandemic – were told about the rising numbers of exclusions, particularly among black pupils.

On Thursday, conference delegates also passed a motion on the Black Lives Matter movement, which called on the NEU’s executive to continue to develop “anti-racist curriculum resources” and offer “anti-racist training”.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “Throughout the pandemic, the Education Secretary has put the safety of staff and pupils at the core of all decision making and has ensured schools and colleges have been fully open wherever possible, based on the best available scientific and medical advice.

“The course of the pandemic has led to swift decisions being taken to respond to changes in our understanding of the virus and action has had to be taken in the national interest.”

She added: “We have made clear that exams are the fairest way to assess pupils, and our reformed GCSEs rigorously assess their knowledge while preparing young people leaving school or college for the workplace or higher study.”