Unions have described the exchanges between former Health Secretary Matt Hancock and former Education Secretary Gavin Williamson as “sneering” and “ugly”, reports Sian Norris
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The latest revelations of leaked WhatsApp messages from Matt Hancock to ministerial colleagues and aides during his time as Health Secretary has angered teachers and teaching unions.
Messages published by the Telegraph and leaked by political commentator Isabel Oakeshott reveal how then Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told Hancock that the teaching unions “really really do just hate work”, with Hancock describing them as “absolute arses”.
The National Association for Headteachers (NAHT) union has responded to the comments, describing them as an “ugly exchange” which “demonstrates the chaos and duplicity at the heart of Government”.
“How can any trust develop when the secret contempt for teachers and the teaching profession is laid bare like this?” the union spokesperson asked.
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) offered a similar response, saying how the “sneering exchange” showed “an appalling lack of respect for teachers”.
Hancock’s spokesperson has said that the leaks offer “partial accounts, obviously spun with an agenda”. Oakeshott has confirmed she broke a non-disclosure agreement over the messages, and it is understood Hancock may take legal action.
Williamson was sacked as Education Secretary by Boris Johnson in September 2021, although the former Prime Minister later offered him a knighthood.
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Chaos and Coronavirus
The leaked messages offer a vivid reminder to the chaos of December 2020 and January 2021, when schools struggled with rising COVID-19 cases alongside an insistence from the Government that classrooms remained open.
As this newspaper reported in the week leading up to 2020’s cancelled Christmas, councils that suggested schools close early in order to minimise the impact of the spreading virus were met with animosity from the Government.
Schools described how the Government threatened to sue them if they did not remain open, despite the guidance coming from local authorities to close doors and send pupils home. Speaking to Byline Times during that stressful week, one teacher described the Government as either being “incompetent” or “screwing people over”.
The Government’s motivation for keeping schools open appeared political, another warned, and did not come from a place of concern for pupils, staff or parents.
A few weeks later, on Sunday 3 January, Johnson insisted that schools would open the following day – which they did, before being forced to close again on 5 January.
Having bonded over their disdain for teaching unions a few months earlier, by early January Hancock was critical of Williamson – saying his Cabinet colleague would be eating “humble pie” over the necessary U-turn, and describing the Education Secretary as going “absolutely gangbusters” over the issue of keeping schools open.
But the exchanges also reveal the chaos in Government at a time when clear and supportive leadership was required.
“We constantly had to sense-check and disentangle the reams of confused guidance they issued, and were often wrong-footed by bizarre policy decisions which were then followed by an inevitable U-turn,” said the ASCL.
Teachers were struggling to know what best to do to keep their pupils safe, to look after their own health, and to stop the virus spreading to at-risk people in the community. They were also juggling workloads of offline and online teaching, and managing the mental health impact of the pandemic on vulnerable children.
“We must not forget COVID-19 was rampant in schools and the whole school community was managing life threatening risk in the most difficult of circumstances,” said an NAHT spokesperson.
Sneers and Contempt
The animosity expressed towards the unions by Hancock and Williamson fit into a pattern of anti-union feeling from the Government that is manifesting in proposed laws seeking to clampdown on strike action and failures to progress discussions about teachers’ pay.
Unions were described by Williamson as those who “hate to work”, with Hancock responding to the message with a bullseye emoji.
2023 has seen teachers walk out the classroom in disputes over pay, with Education Secretary Gillian Keegan calling the actions “unforgivable, especially after everything children have been through because of the pandemic”.
Throughout the pandemic, teachers repeatedly described how they were the key workers it was okay to hate – as they faced continuing criticism from the Government for advocating for school closures to keep staff, pupils and parents safe. Teachers described how when schools were closed, they were accused of not working, despite the fact they continued to deliver offline and online lessons.
The Government’s Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill now seeks to set minimum service levels for six key public services, including education, in a move that Unison has described as “drastically curtailing labour rights in Britain”.
Williamson responded to the Telegraph splash by saying “these messages were about some unions and not teachers. I have the utmost respect for teachers who work tirelessly to support students. During the pandemic, teachers went above and beyond during very challenging times”.
However, such comments ignore that teachers make up the union membership.
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