Williamson and Hancock’s leaked Whatsapp messages reveal contempt for workers & unions

Comments about teaching unions cause widespread anger - NEU comments

2 Mar 2023| News

Teachers and unions have expressed outrage at leaked messages that show the contempt with which former Ministers held the teaching unions. Gavin Williamson said teaching unions ‘really hate work’ in a Whatsapp message to Matt Hancock, leaked to the Telegraph.

More than 100,000 WhatsApp messages were leaked by the rightwing political commentator  Isabel Oakeshott, who was given the material by Mr Hancock when they were working together on a book about his time in government. The exchange reportedly took place in 2020, during the pandemic. In reply to Mr Hancock’s comment:

“Cracking announcement today. What a bunch of absolute arses the teaching unions are” Williamson responded: “I know they really really do just hate work.”

Discussing schools buying PPE, Mr Williamson texted: “Some will just want to say they can’t so they have an excuse to avoid having to teach, what joys!!!”

In addition to the offensive nature of these remarks, the exchange reveal a deep ignorance of how unions work – a point that has been stressed on social media by unions and teachers. In an apparent apology, Williamson said on Twitter:

“Further to reports in the Telegraph and other outlets, I wish to clarify that these messages were about some unions and not teachers.”

It’s not clear that reasoning stacks up, but even so, the (non) apology clearly reveals a huge misunderstanding of what trade unions are and how they operate. Teaching unions are not separate from teachers. The are made up by teachers, and the policies they carry out are decided democratically by teachers. There is no teaching unions vs teachers.

A similar tack was taken by current Tory schools minister Nick Gibb defending Mr Williamson on LBC. He said that people say things “in the heat of the moment” on WhatsApp that “they don’t really believe”:

“I think [Mr Williamson] 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.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) union, said Mr Williamson’s comments were “snide” and “contemptible”.

Commenting on the WhatsApp exchange, Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“Teachers and education staff worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic and there was never a time when they were not working. The education unions listened to the science and acted to protect the school community when the Government was doing neither. Government dragged their feet over providing laptops for children most in need, while it took the footballer Marcus Rashford to shame them into Free School Meals provision during the school holidays. Evidence that could have curbed the impact of Covid, resulting in wider lockdowns, was ignored, and they gave consistently late information to head teachers on the latest measures being imposed by Government on schools and colleges. It was nothing short of a shambles.

The Education Secretary was clearly out of his depth and, we now hear, contemptuous of unions and teachers. Given the current dispute with the Department for Education over teacher pay, we sincerely hope Gillian Keegan does not share this attitude and gets around the table to discuss a resolution to the pay dispute.”