The president of the UK’s biggest teaching union has compared the education secretary to Pinocchio, saying Gavin Williamson was “limp and spineless” as he attacked him for his actions during the pandemic.
Robin Bevan, the incoming president of the National Education Union and head teacher of Southend high school in Essex, said that, like the famous puppet, Williamson was also failing to tell the truth, particularly about the need for examinations.
Bevan, in a speech to the union’s virtual annual conference, claimed that many people thought Williamson most resembled Frank Spencer, the hapless figure played by Michael Crawford in the 1970s TV comedy series Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em.
“Personally, I think that’s a comparison that is unfair,” Bevan said. “Not on Gavin Williamson, it’s unfair on Michael Crawford.”
He said Pinocchio was a more accurate fictional comparison. “Throughout recent months we’ve seen that the secretary of state is indeed wooden-headed, is indeed a puppet, is limp and spineless,” Bevan said.
He poured scorn on Williamson’s record in office, telling delegates: “This is a man who issued high court injunctions in order to stop pupils from staying at home at a time when schools all across the country were being ravaged by Covid-19.
“This is a secretary of state who refused to publish the attendance figures of pupils in school that week, until many weeks after they would normally be due.
“And this is a man who, two days after … the prime minister had ruled that it was time for a national lockdown, stood up in the Houses of Parliament and said that if parents weren’t happy about the education being provided remotely – bear in mind, with only 48 hours’ notice – that they should report the school to Ofsted.”
When thousands of parents then told Ofsted how much they supported their local schools, Williamson “said nothing”, according to Bevan.
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “Throughout the pandemic, the education secretary has put the safety of staff and pupils at the core of all decision-making and has ensured schools and colleges have been fully open wherever possible, based on the best available scientific and medical advice.
“The course of the pandemic has led to swift decisions being taken to respond to changes in our understanding of the virus and action has had to be taken in the national interest. The full return of all pupils in March has been thanks to the hard work of staff and young people who have consistently followed the range of protective measures put in place to reduce the risk of transmission.”
The conference was later told that sexism “stalks the corridors and classrooms”, with Amy Kilpatrick, a teacher from Newcastle, telling delegates that a “toxic, laddish culture” was pervasive within the UK’s schools, during a debate on how to respond to the revelations of sexual abuse and harassment recently published on the Everyone’s Invited website.
The motion passed overwhelmingly by delegates called for schools to have “robust sexual harassment and abuse policies” for the safety of staff and students.
Kilpatrick backed a successful amendment urging male teachers and boys “to learn about sexism and its roots and develop understanding and methods to challenge their peers”, in order to support women and girls.
“In order to achieve the drastic changes we want to see, then we must educate our boys, our male teachers and support staff,” Kilpatrick said.
“We need to ensure that no boy growing up now can say ‘but it was just banter’ – and that starts with education and with having men as allies.”
Richard Rieser, who works in east London, called on men to “own up and take responsibility” for sexism. “We have to make sure that the response in our schools is not just the women and the girls. It has to be the men challenging sexism and standing shoulder to shoulder with our sisters,” he said.
Mary Bousted, the NEU’s joint general secretary, said: “We’ve got to find better ways to listen to girls voices and to talk actively in schools about sexism, because boys don’t ‘grow out’ of the sexist stereotypes pushed on to them.”