(Gavin Williamson secretary of state for education, October 2022)
Debate over the government’s handling of the pandemic has recently been re-ignited by Daily Telegraph journalist Isobel Oakeshott’s decision to publish private WhatsApp messages between the health secretary Matt Hancock and secretary of state for education Gavin Williamson at that time.
I have a specific concern about one WhatsApp comment in particular which is offensive, unjustified and indicates lack of respect for the teaching profession. During negotiations with the teaching unions over the re-opening of schools at a time when infection rates were still incredibly high, Gavin Williamson sent a message stating “…I know they really really do just hate work…”
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it showed “an appalling lack of respect for teachers” at a time of national emergency when unions were trying to engage constructively with the government. Appalling, but sadly not surprising.
The government’s refusal to engage in negotiations over pay and conditions with the nursing profession, ambulance drivers, post office workers and rail workers reveals a lack of respect for public sector employees that is not confined to the teaching profession.
Throughout the challenging times of the pandemic when teachers, nurses, ambulance drivers, rail workers, post office workers and many others continued to maintain essential public services, unselfishly putting themselves and their families at considerable risk of potentially fatal infection, the government urged everyone to show their respect and admiration for key workers.
I spoke to our postie on the doorstep about the high infection rates in the sorting office as he continued to go into work, and to teachers anxious about shielding vulnerable relatives while keeping schools open for children of key workers. It seems barely credible that those same key workers have been accused of not caring about the very people they continued to serve at considerable personal risk when they decided to take industrial action over pay and conditions. Pay that is not even close to keeping abreast of inflation, or even more significantly, pay increases in the private sector.
Typically, little is said in the media about teachers’ industrial action being driven not just by pay, but the funding of childrens education, or nurses and ambulance drivers concerns over patients’ safety, or rail workers’ concerns about passenger safety.
Poor pay and conditions are not only failing to appropriately reward hard working and dedicated staff, but will continue to exacerbate the growing recruitment crisis putting even more pressure on the existing workforce.
Isobel Oakeshott may have acted unprofessionally in publishing some private messages, but I for one am more concerned about the thinking behind the action taken by senior government ministers in managing our key public services. After all they are the people making decisions which define our future and we need to be able to have trust in their honesty and integrity.