Sir Gavin Williamson accused teachers of looking for an “excuse” not to work during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to leaked messages from Matt Hancock published by The Daily Telegraph.
In May 2020, as teachers prepared for classrooms to reopen, the then education secretary had messaged Mr Hancock asking for help in securing personal protective equipment (PPE) for schools.
He said this was so staff could not use a lack of it as “a reason not to open”.
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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!!!”
It was a rather different view to the one he expressed in public that same month, praising teachers for “going above and beyond the call of duty”, adding: “You have simply been outstanding and we are so grateful for what you’ve done”.
Five months later, Mr Hancock messaged Sir Gavin to congratulate him on his decision to delay A-level exams for a few weeks, due to the virus.
Mr Hancock, then the 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.”
Mr Hancock’s reply was two laughing face emojis and a bullseye.
The key exchanges
‘I broke NDA, but it wasn’t personal’
On Wednesday night Williamson tweeted what he claimed were clarifications about his messages, saying it was certain unions, not teachers themselves that he was criticising.
He tweeted: “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.”
Leaked messages ‘contemptible’
But Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders union, has said the reported comments are “contemptible”.
Mr Barton told the BBC: “It’s contemptible because we have to remind ourselves that this was an age of extraordinary anxiety. We hadn’t got vaccines.
“And the government was starting to look to the teaching profession to welcome those young people back into school. It was a huge debate going on, very snarky debate about whether face coverings should or shouldn’t be worn.
“And essentially, the very people who then brought those young people back into school are being described in those snide terms by the former education secretary, in the very terms which, 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.”
Analysis: Explosive messages lay bare political handling of the pandemic
Hancock and Williamson clash over school closures
The files obtained by The Telegraph also appear to show a behind the scenes clash between Mr Hancock and Sir Gavin in December 2020 over whether schools should reopen as the second wave of COVID took hold.
After the then education secretary persuaded Boris Johnson to keep classrooms open, Mr Hancock is said to have text one of his aides saying they needed to fight a “rear-guard action” to prevent a “policy car crash”.
The exchange took place during a Zoom meeting about school closures, when Mr Hancock’s special adviser Emma Dean said the education secretary was “freaking out”, adding: “You can tell he isn’t being wholly rational. Just by his body language.”
Mr Hancock replied: “I’m having to turn the volume down.”
At the end of the meeting, Mr Hancock said: “I want to find a way, Gavin having won the day, of actually preventing a policy car crash when the kids spread the disease in January. And for that we must now fight a rear-guard action.”
How were the WhatsApps leaked?
The Telegraph said the messages show he then contacted Dan Rosenfield, Mr Johnson’s chief of staff, to begin his attempt to have schools closed before children returned, providing him with his private email address.
In the event, on 4 January, after many younger children had returned to classes for a single day, Mr Johnson announced schools would close and exams would be cancelled amid a national lockdown. They did not reopen until 8 March 2021.
In an article for The Telegraph, Sir Gavin said that he had considered quitting over the decision as he was so unhappy.
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The decision to first close schools was made by the government in March 2020, although some schools had already made the choice for themselves.
Over the following year, children endured a rollercoaster of reopenings and closures, as the country tried to strike a balance between containing the virus and resuming normal life
Unions and schools had repeatedly said they did not want to put teachers or vulnerable children at risk.
But the government also faced a problem in that parents were having to stay home to look after children during school closures, preventing them from returning fully to work.
A number of reports since then have documented the negative consequences for students.
In January 2021, research from the Social Mobility Foundation said the closures could wipe out a decade of progress closing the gap between less privileged pupils and their peers.
And in May 2021, a study by think tank Social Finance found that disadvantaged children were the least likely to return to school after lockdown.
A spokesman for Mr Hancock said: “Tonight’s revelations are exactly like last night’s. These are partial accounts, obviously spun with an agenda.
“They show Matt was focused throughout on saving lives. The right place for a full assessment is the (official Covid) inquiry.”