It doesn’t take a GCSE in English to decipher what Gavin Williamson meant when he accused teaching unions of “really really” hating work in leaked WhatsApp messages to the former health secretary Matt Hancock, published by the Telegraph. Williamson’s defence of these comments, that they refer to unions and not individual teachers, gets little more than a D-minus for empathy from this teacher.
It’s little surprise that a Tory politician would have such resentment and disregard for unionisation. It is politically expedient, and downright characteristic, for a Conservative government that has presided over a decade of austerity and debilitating cuts to the education sector to find a scapegoat for its difficulties in work-shy teachers. We saw it throughout the pandemic. While us teachers were turning ourselves into social workers, child psychologists, food-bank workers and e-learning experts overnight (while providing the resources for pupils that the government had all but forgotten about out of our own pockets), those in positions of power wasted no time in portraying us as doing nothing but sunbathing in our gardens on full pay. Lest we forget that one Tory MP assumed we were all boozing it up in the staffroom during the global pandemic.
Williamson’s reassurance that his comments were only about unions reveals the conviction of this inherently anti-union government, its wilful refusal to acknowledge the dire circumstances that are driving teachers towards unionisation in the first place – and ministers’ part in creating those conditions.
When over 90 per cent of members from the nation’s largest teaching union (the NEU) voted in support of strike action, it is impossible to separate teachers from the unions that represent us. To attack teaching unions is to attack teachers themselves, and in turn the young people we work with. It is to attack our rights, our access to fair pay and to equitable treatment at work. But it is also to drown out our expert voices demanding more funding and better support. And to derail our holding the government to account, and to distract the public with fictional portrayals of teachers as idle, over-political liberals with too much annual holiday on our hands.
Contrary to what the government wants the public to believe, teachers are not simply greedy for more time off. Teachers are unionising because the education sector is crumbling to pieces, and unions are our mouthpiece. They are a way to ensure that, collectively, our voices are heard and our labour and expertise is recognised for what they are: vital.
Schools are at a tipping point, and it’s no coincidence that the NEU has admitted tens of thousands of new members in the wake of its overwhelming vote for strike action. Up and down the country, teachers are experiencing the same thing. Our school buildings are in states of disrepair, and we are securing the best futures we can for children with decades-old resources, no support staff and cuts to critical services for the most vulnerable. All the while, schools can barely afford to keep the lights on let alone employ that much-needed teaching assistant or PE teacher – and teachers can barely afford the ever-rising cost of living. To top it off, the recruitment crisis is only getting worse. Research by the NEU found that almost half of teachers plan to leave the profession by 2027. As our colleagues disappear, our class sizes only continue to grow, and cuts to government funding slash the life chances of children that are already living in poverty or instability.
The last thing teachers or unions want is disruption to learning, but when faced with a government that would rather gossip about us on WhatsApp than make fundamental changes for young people and their educators then what choice do we have?