Sir Gavin Williamson accused teachers of looking for an “excuse” not to work during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to leaked messages from Matt Hancock published by The Daily Telegraph.
In May 2020, as teachers prepared for classrooms to reopen, the then education secretary had messaged Mr Hancock asking for help in securing personal protective equipment (PPE) for schools.
He said this was so staff could not use a lack of it as “a reason not to open”.
He added: “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!!!”
It was a rather different view to the one he expressed in public that same month, praising teachers for “going above and beyond the call of duty”, adding: “You have simply been outstanding and we are so grateful for what you’ve done”.
Five months later, Mr Hancock messaged Sir Gavin to congratulate him on his decision to delay A-level exams for a few weeks, due to the virus.
Mr Hancock, then the health secretary, wrote: “Cracking announcement today.
“What a bunch of absolute arses the teaching unions are.”
Sir Gavin responded: “I know they really really do just hate work.”
Mr Hancock’s reply was two laughing face emojis and a bullseye.
On Wednesday night Williamson tweeted what he claimed were clarifications about his messages, saying it was certain unions, not teachers themselves that he was criticising.
He tweeted: “Further to 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.”
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The decision to close schools was made by the government in March 2020, although some schools had already made the choice for themselves.
Over the following year, children endured a rollercoaster of reopenings and closures, as the country tried to strike a balance between containing the virus and resuming normal life.
Unions and schools had repeatedly said they did not want to put teachers or vulnerable children at risk.
But the government also faced a problem in that parents were having to stay home to look after children during school closures, preventing them from returning fully to work.
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A number of reports since then have documented the negative consequences for students.
In January 2021, research from the Social Mobility Foundation said the closures could wipe out a decade of progress closing the gap between less privileged pupils and their peers.
And in May 2021, a study by think tank Social Finance found that disadvantaged children were the least likely to return to school after lockdown.