Politics

Williamson lockdown texts reveal ‘secret contempt’ for teachers

Leaked messages suggest former education secretary claimed school staff looked for an 'excuse to avoid having to teach'

Leaked messages suggest former education secretary claimed school staff looked for an 'excuse to avoid having to teach'

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Leaked texts sent by Sir Gavin Williamson during the pandemic reveal the “secret contempt for teachers” and “chaos and duplicity” in the heart of government, leaders have said.

The former education secretary has come under fire for WhatsApp messages which suggest he claimed teachers were looking for an “excuse” not to teach during the early months of Covid.

The revelations were reported in the Telegraph yesterday, after messages sent and received by ex-health secretary Matthew Hancock were leaked to the newspaper.

During an exchange in May 2020 in which Williamson asked about supplies of personal protective equipment for schools, he described his request as “a last resort so they can’t use it as a reason not to open”.

“All of them will but some will just want to say they can’t so they have an excuse to avoid having to teach, what joys!!!”

The comments conflict with the praise heaped on school staff by ministers in public. In September 2021 Williamson thanked them for their “incredible efforts” during the pandemic.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT school leaders’ union, said the “ugly exchange 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. We must not forget Covid was rampant in schools and the whole school community was managing life threatening risk in the most difficult of circumstances.”

Munira Wilson, the Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, has demanded an apology from Williamson, accusing the education secretary of a “catalogue” of failures while in the role.

Unions ‘really do just hate work’

Schools closed to most pupils in March 2020 and did not begin to reopen more widely until June of that year. Throughout the period the government repeatedly clashed with schools and unions representing their staff over safety measures, or the lack thereof, in education.

Williamson faced heavy criticism in particular for his handling of the 2020 exams fiasco, when the government U-turned on a decision to award centre-assessed grades. Just months later, he announced 2021 exams would be delayed. They were eventually cancelled.

In October 2021, after the delay announcement was made, Hancock contacted Williamson to praise him for his “cracking announcement today”.

“What a bunch of absolute arses the teaching unions are,” he added.

Williamson replied: “I know they really really do just hate work”.

In relation to the exchange over securing PPE for schools, the former education secretary tweeted last night that his comments were made “about some unions and not teachers”.

“I have the utmost respect for teachers who work tirelessly to support students,” he added.

‘The most incompetent education secretary’

The leaked messages have been heavily criticised by leaders.

Simon Smith tweeted that he had “worked everyday, including being open for the school holidays for keyworkers. Isolated myself from family, saw my wife in the garden. Our staff went over and above to support families”.

“Williamson was possibly the most incompetent education secretary ever, the fact he seeks to blame others is a sign of his poor leadership. Guidance was almost always last minute and often contradictory.”

Stephen Fallon, a primary head, tweeted that schools had “basically had to find a whole new way of teaching (remote, online) a new way of keeping check in vulnerable families, rotas for onsite working etc etc it was hard, this latest exposure confirms they had and have no idea!!!!”.

Another leader said they were “trying not to overshare the absolute anger I have about what he has said”.

The messages leaked to the Telegraph also reveal how Williamson and Hancock battled over the issue of school closures, particularly over the return in January 2021, which was fraught with U-turns and last-minute decisions.

Hancock is reported to have argued at the time it was “mad” to try to keep schools open, adding he wanted to avoid a “policy car crash when the kids spread the disease in January”.

In the end, schools were once again closed to most pupils until March 2021.

‘I wonder whether I should have resigned’

Writing for the Telegraph, Williamson said his “overriding concern was that children only get one shot at education, so I felt it was the right thing to do to consistently put that argument forward – but obviously, in politics you don’t always win the argument”.

He said the U-turn on school closures in early 2021 was “absolutely crushing. It was one of the worst moments of the entire pandemic”.

“Looking back now, I wonder whether I should have resigned at that point. I certainly thought long and deeply over whether I should have gone then. I just felt so personally upset about it.

“Ultimately, if the medical experts were saying that’s what needed to be done then you’re torn even if – in your heart of hearts – you know the best place for children was in school.”

The former education secretary said he didn’t regret making the arguments he made “even when decisions went against me”.

“I will never stop believing that arguing for schools to stay open in January 2021 was the right thing to do.

“At all stages of the pandemic, we saw teachers, teaching assistants and support staff doing so much, caring for children, putting them first. Amazing work was being done in schools up and down the country.”

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