Voices: Matt Hancock’s leaked messages prove what teachers like me suspected all along
It is October 2021, still deep in the heart of the pandemic, and I am sitting in my school’s science lab on a Thursday afternoon.
There are dozens of teachers in here, all clad in masks and as socially distanced as we can manage. At the front is Carol, a teacher of many years’ standing. As well as being renowned for producing some of the best exam results in the school, she is also our rep for the National Education Union. She’s brought a couple of boxes of home-made biscuits to pass round.
“OK, everyone, thank you for coming. Let’s make a start…”
Over the next twenty minutes or so (Carol likes to keep it brief – she knows everyone’s frantic), she talks us through changes to school policy she’s working on with the head, our rights if we need to take time off school, and some of the NEU’s ongoing campaigns.
After all this, she fields questions from a number of colleagues, says she’ll hang around for some quieter chats, and reminds us of her open-door policy. At a time of anxiety, uncertainty and loneliness, the solidarity and support are a godsend.
Yesterday, the leak of Matt Hancock’s pandemic WhatsApp messages revealed that the then-education secretary had said that the teaching unions “really really do just hate work”. While teachers everywhere will be delighted to see their warnings about the perils of injudicious messaging vindicated, they may remember that time slightly differently from Williamson.
Amid the hollowing-out of the social security net around children, schools emerged as a fourth emergency service even before the pandemic. Then, from March 2020, stories abounded of teachers delivering meal parcels to families, ensuring that everyone could access virtual learning despite patchy broadband and device provision, and addressing the catastrophic loneliness and bereavement so many children experienced.
Facing a total absence of leadership from central government, teachers were left to look out for themselves and each other. As has been the case for 150 years, unions were at the centre of this struggle.
But, like all fair teachers, perhaps we ought to hear the miscreant out. He has, after all, scrambled to issue a clarification this morning, indicating that he’s just having a pop at unions, not teachers. Leaving aside the terrible shock he’ll get when he discovers that teaching unions are made up of, well, teachers, let’s have a brief look at the respective track records of the unions and Williamson during the pandemic.
Following his total abdication of responsibility over the 2020 exam results fiasco, it was Geoff Barton of the Association of School and College Leaders who warned of the need for clarity in 2021 long before the Department for Education outlined its exhausting, belated centre-assessed grades plan.
While unions showed that teachers were topping the table of professionals doing unpaid overtime in 2021 (alongside a large real-terms pay cut), Williamson was allegedly telling an aide to “slit [their] throat” (an allegation Williamson has since denied).
Despite unions showing that teachers were 37 per cent more likely to face Covid infection than other workers, Williamson was happy to pursue the farce of opening schools for one day in January 2021 as infection rates soared.
Time and again, unions went out to bat for teachers, reminding politicians, the media and the public that society couldn’t function without them. Our man Gav, however, decided to assert his own unsackability by taking a photo with a riding-crop. The contrast couldn’t be more stark.
Almost two years on from the return to schools following the second lockdown, there’s a beautiful irony in Williamson’s words. Support for industrial action is on the rise as the public realise the value of public-sector workers, whereas 92 per cent of teachers approved of Williamson’s departure as education secretary.
In the time that’s passed, perhaps he and Matt Hancock have realised they’re not exempt from the benefits of professional solidarity. Like so many others in my position, I left teaching in July, in my case to pursue research into the effects of austerity on education in the UK. But I’m still a paid-up member of the NEU.
It’s the work that they and other unions do that gives me the hope that I can go back into the profession in the future, and staunch the flow of teachers away from the sector. If the last three years have shown us anything, it’s that teachers love their jobs, and want more support to do them. It’s unions – and certainly neither Williamson nor Hancock – who have been on our side in that struggle.