Williamson’s WhatsApp defence is just more tribal politics

By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders
Soon after the Telegraph published WhatsApp exchanges between Matt Hancock and Gavin Williamson about schools in the pandemic, Mr Williamson took to Twitter. It was an attempt to dig himself out of the latest hole in an accident-prone political career.
His defence was revealing. This is what he said:
Further to these 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.

You may wish to compare and contrast that public tweet of partial remorse with what the former education secretary was reported to have been saying in those back-channel WhatsApp messages, as reported in the Telegraph. Here’s a flavour.
First, at a time when there was a shortage of personal protective equipment, he asked Mr Hancock to provide a “very small” amount to schools. “It was basically 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!!!” wrote Mr Williamson.

Second was his comment in response to a message from Mr Hancock congratulating Mr Williamson on a plan to delay A level exams for a few weeks. Mr Hancock said: “Cracking announcement today. What a bunch of absolute arses the teaching unions are.

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

To which Mr Hancock replied with some laughing emojis and a dart hitting a target.

Now I’m guessing we all have text messages and emails that might make us cringe if published on the front page of a national newspaper. But then, we’re not running the departments of health and education during the nation’s biggest public health crisis in 50 years.

So, it’s not the revelation that politicians – rather like us normal people – use private messaging that’s the issue. Rather, it’s the nature of those comments – the sneery, dismissive attitude to the very people whom the government would need to rely on to open up our schools and colleges in the way that the teaching profession and support staff did. 

And then there’s the misunderstanding at the heart of the distinction between unions and teachers. In Mr Williamson’s mind, these are evidently two different things, with apparently no recognition that most teachers and leaders belong to trade unions; indeed, that many of them will have roles as union representatives or branch secretaries. 

This is presumably why Mr Williamson did not involve the unions in formulating a strategy for education during the pandemic and instead lurched from crisis to crisis, U-turn to U-turn.

We – the unions – were seen as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

It is a mindset which is apparent among many other ministers, right-wing politicians and similarly minded journalists and commentators. It is why they dismiss calls for fairer pay awards as being “unrealistic” and strike action as “disrupting education” while simultaneously talking about how they value teachers and leaders. 

It is why they are quick to paint education as being infiltrated by left-wing agitators. It’s why they love that old-fashioned tribal talk of ‘union barons’.

It is also the reason why they feel empowered to bring forward anti-union legislation in the form of extraordinarily illiberal minimum service levels.

It is the reason why the government in the current pay dispute plays political games by refusing to talk to education unions unless the National Education Union suspends strike action without there actually being any hint of an offer on the table.

Never mind that the very teachers who – in Mr Williamson’s words – go “above and beyond” had their pay cut in real-terms this academic year, frozen the previous year, and eroded over the past decade.

Or that a decade of underfunding has seen schools and colleges cut to the bone, leaving a demoralised workforce to do more work with fewer resources.

Or that these pressures have unsurprisingly led to a teacher shortage at virtually every school and college in the country despite the government being warned about this over and over again.

Evidently, if you have a mindset that unions are just troublemaking lefties then an industrial dispute can conveniently be seen in that light. It is more Punch and Judy politics. And is as depressing as it is squalid. 
Whether or not any settlement can be dragged out of a government that views the world in this tribal way remains to be seen. 

One suspects that public opinion may win the day because it seems that many people are supportive of the teachers and other public servants who are calling for a fairer deal. God knows, they are certainly not supportive of the government.

But whatever happens in the current pay dispute, we surely need a more grown-up form of politics than this awful oppositional stuff. 

Mr Williamson’s comments in that WhatsApp exchange are appalling and contemptible. But he is far from being alone in believing in a false dichotomy between unions and workers. And until we see an end to this prevailing ‘them-and-us’ world view, it’s not clear that much is going to change.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary.
Posted: 03/03/2023 09:04:56