Dear Gavin Williamson,
Ten years ago I was a soldier serving as an intelligence analyst in Helmand province in Afghanistan. The coalition government had just come to power, and we were visited by a delegation of ministers including Liam Fox, the new Defence secretary.
With hundreds of eyes staring him down, he stood there, in the heart of a land where so many British servicemen and women were still losing their lives, and told us that life was going to get tougher for us. There were going to be cuts at the Ministry of Defence: there would be pay freezes, pensions were to be looked at, defence contracts stripped back. It was brutal but honest. It was a display of leadership. He assured us that he would always support our best interests, but there would be fights he would lose.
What we begrudge is the divisive way you are pitching teachers against the general public
Ten years on, I am an English teacher and the head of a large department in a state secondary school. It’s the toughest job I’ve ever had. I worked hard in the military. I work even harder as a teacher. Every day is like being on an operational tour. The past nine weeks have been the most difficult yet.
I say, now as a teacher, Mr Williamson, you are our secretary of state: you are our boss and we are looking to you for leadership.
We are yet to experience any such leadership. Your daily briefing on Saturday was an ideal time for you to tell the nation that there are thousands of teachers ready to go back to school when called upon – when your government reassures parents and teachers alike that it’s safe. It was also an opportunity for you to stand with us and explain that teachers are working incredibly hard to ensure that our students don’t lose out.
You are our voice, yet you did not speak for us. You spoke in divisive, hyperbolic rhetoric of how “we owe it to the children” and that the unions had a “duty” to get teachers back to school. You called us heroes last week. Nobody believes these empty words. I don’t believe it, you don’t believe it. You ramp up the hyperbole and you divide us further from the people we serve.
You and your colleagues do not need to remind teachers what we owe and to whom. The biggest pleasure in my role as an educator is the awareness of why I am here.
Driving home after being with key workers’ children at school on Tuesday, I heard George Eustice, the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, respond to a question on schools reopening with a retort that NHS workers and supermarket staff have been working throughout lockdown. It is unhelpful and unwarranted attacks on teachers like this that demonstrate both a lack of leadership and a lack of understanding from people running our country. We are still working, much like parliamentarians are: at a distance.
So I’d like to reassure everyone in government that in the past nine weeks of school closure, my team have done an incredible job creating an online and remote service for our students that is as accessible as we can make it – the same goes for schools and teachers up and down the country. We have planned for every eventuality all the way up to the autumn term. We have set work, marked it and communicated with students about their studies. We have created hundreds of videos to complement lessons. Monitoring our students’ progress from afar has proved a challenge – endless spreadsheets, phone calls and Zoom chats has helped. At the same time I have asked my team to plan for our future so that when we do go back to school, we are all ready.
Every bit of hard work we have been doing for our school, our students and our community has been done in the backdrop of a pandemic. A pandemic we are not immune from. Colleagues, including myself, have fallen ill: some with mild symptons, others far worse. There are pregnancies and underlying health conditions. Many are looking after their own children. Some are looking after elderly family. Some have lost family and friends.
Despite, or perhaps because of all this, we want to go back to school. I have had to fight with members of my team who have been told to stay away because they want to go in and help. We are desperate to return. Selfishly, it’s our safe place too. We love what we do and the period of lockdown has been a stripped-back, frustratingly draconian version of what we love doing best: being educators.
What we begrudge is the divisive way you are pitching us against the general public. Questioning safety for ourselves, our families and our communities is not a subversive act. If our head and governors consider a risk assessment based on a sound plan to bring back year 10 next month, the vast majority of us will be there with bells and whistles. We trust our head and governors.
The same cannot be said for our trust in you as a voice for our best interests right now.
The school I work in is named as a memorial to our country’s greatest wartime leader. Given that you seem hell-bent on personifying this pandemic as an act of war in some way, perhaps it is time for you to embody some wartime leadership of your own. If you can’t muster that – and let’s face it, few can – then at least be honest with us.
• Gary Collins is head of English at a secondary school in England. He is writing in a personal capacity