Gavin Williamson has come under fire for a series of leaked messages which revealed he said teachers were looking for an “excuse” not to work during the pandemic.
In the alleged messages, the then-education secretary criticised teaching unions during the pandemic saying that they “really do just hate work”.
The leaked WhatsApp messages have been seen by The Daily Telegraph as part of their “Lockdown Files” investigation. It follows journalist Isabel Oakeshott’s decision to pass on thousands of WhatsApp messages first shared with her by former health secretary Matt Hancock in order to write up his pandemic diaries.
Responding to the reported messages, Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders union, called the comments “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”.
He added: “An apology would be fine but those people, let’s be honest, are yesterday’s men”.
Last night, Sir Gavin said the messages “were about some unions and not teachers”. In an article for The Telegraph the former education secretary said he considered resigning during the pandemic over the Government’s decision to shut schools at the start of 2021.
Sir Gavin said that he thought “long and deeply” about quitting.
“Looking back now, I wonder whether I should have resigned at that point. I certainly thought long and deeply over whether I should have gone then. I just felt so personally upset about it. Ultimately, if the medical experts were saying that’s what needed to be done then you’re torn even if – in your heart of hearts – you know the best place for children was in school”.
“I’ve always been a team player, but you often found that different departments had different priorities and you sometimes felt that what was said one day was very rapidly changing the next day”.
Elsewhere, Sir Gavin has been urged to apologise over teacher remarks by the Liberal Democrats.
Munira Wilson, the party’s education spokeswoman, said: “Gavin Williamson was a disgraceful education secretary and these comments solidify his place in history as one of the worst Ministers ever to grace Government.
She added: “At the very least Gavin Williamson should apologise for these comments. The most shocking thing about Williamson’s catalogue of failures is that Rishi Sunak believes this person was still fit to serve in Government”.
It comes amid a broader war of words between Ms Oakeshott and Mr Hancock. The former health secretary shared a lengthy statement this morning, saying he was “hugely disappointed and sad at the massive betrayal and breach of trust by Isabel Oakshott”.
He added: “There is absolutely no public interest case for this huge breach. All the materials for the book have already been made available to the Inquiry, which is the right, and only, place for everything to be considered properly and the right lessons to be learned. As we have seen, releasing them in this way gives a partial, biased account to suit an anti-lockdown agenda”.
Ms Oakeshott has also been commenting this morning; she has called Mr Hancock’s comments on public interest “ridiculous”.
Speaking to TalkTV, Ms Oakeshott said: “What a ridiculous defence. For someone who’s as intelligent as Matt Hancock to issue a statement saying there is no public interest in these revelations is patently absurd. And he knows that very well.”