Teaching unions have hit out at “contemptible” comments by Sir Gavin Williamson, after leaked messages showed the then education secretary appearing to accuse staff of looking for an “excuse” not to work during the Covid pandemic.
The comments emerged in the latest set of leaked messages from Matt Hancock, published by the Daily Telegraph, and show the two ministers hitting out at the attitude of teaching unions.
On October 1 2020, Mr Hancock messaged Sir Gavin to congratulate him on his decision to delay A-level exams for a few weeks.
The then health secretary wrote: “Cracking announcement today. What a bunch of absolute arses the teaching unions are.”
Sir Gavin responded: “I know they really really do just hate work.”
Earlier that year, in May, Sir Gavin messaged Mr Hancock asking for his help in securing personal protective equipment (PPE) for schools so a lack of such equipment could not be used “as a reason not to open”.
He added: “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!!!”
Writing on Twitter after the story emerged, Sir Gavin said he had not been criticising teachers but “some unions”.
He added: “Further to reports in the Telegraph and other outlets, I wish to clarify that these messages were about some Unions and not teachers.
“As demonstrated in the exchange, I was responding regarding Unions. 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 and very much continue to do so.”
But Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders union, condemned the “snide” comments.
He told BBC Breakfast: “It’s contemptible because we have to remind ourselves that this was an age of extraordinary anxiety. We hadn’t got vaccines.
“As somebody who’s worked in education for all these years, who wants the brightest and the best young people to want to become politicians, that is less likely this morning because of that sneering denigration of the teaching profession.”
Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said Sir Gavin had been “clearly out of his depth” in his handling of the pandemic, with the latest messages showing his “contemptuous” approach to unions and teachers.
The leak of the messages, handed to the Daily Telegraph by journalist Isabel Oakeshott after she collaborated with Mr Hancock on his memoirs, has led to a series of stories detailing some of the inside workings of government during the pandemic.
Mr Hancock called the leak a “massive betrayal and breach of trust”.
The Government faced awkward questions about the remarks, with schools minister Nick Gibb insisting the comments were made “in the heat of the moment”.
He told LBC: “I think he was talking about the union, but I don’t think he believes that either. Gavin’s own wife is a primary school teacher. I’ve worked with Gavin for two years, I know he holds teachers in the highest regard.
“We all in Government hold teachers in the highest regard, both during the pandemic and in normal times as well.”
Sir Gavin, who has a chequered history in ministerial roles, was forced to resign from Rishi Sunak’s administration last year after only a few weeks in office following allegations about his behaviour.
He was previously sacked by Theresa May as defence secretary in 2019 for leaking details of a National Security Council meeting, before losing his education secretary job over the Covid-19 A-levels debacle.
Published: by Radio NewsHub