Michael Gove’s apology to his former French teacher is relatively refreshing. Most politicians, presumably to make space for the letters ‘M’ and ‘P’ after their name, choose to abandon any apparent sense of humility.
In an open letter, published in this week’s Radio Times, the Education Secretary describes the scene in Mr Montgomery’s classroom at Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen as a maleficent melee of “pathetic showing off” and “clever-dick questions”. Perhaps not a prime study scenario, but perfect preparation for Prime Minister’s Questions.
Acknowledging that his apology is tardy to the tune of 30 years, the Conservative MP for Surrey Heath referred to himself and his classmates as “a cocksure crew of precociously assertive boys”. An appraisal as accurate as it is eloquent perhaps, and apt of a man earmarked in his early years as a “future leader of the Conservative Party”, by a teaching colleague of Mr Montgomery.
Mr Gove delivers an enthusiastic eulogy to the educative efforts of his former schoolmaster, although referring to him as ‘Danny’ could be deemed an unnecessary effort to adjust their erstwhile status gap. He concedes; “you were trying, patiently, doggedly, good-humouredly, to broaden our horizons. You were, without any pretension or pomposity, attempting to coax a group of hormonal lads to look beyond familiar horizons and venture further.”
Depending on who you speak to, young master Gove may indeed have learnt the lesson of ‘looking beyond familiar horizons’, although apparently backwards, and he may have been absent for the without ‘pomposity’ part. Politically, his Education White Paper produced a predictably mixed reaction, and when questioning members of the profession itself, as politicians all too rarely do, the responses range from suspicious to snarling.
Having said that, breaking what John Bangs, the former Head of Education at the National Union of Teachers, referred to as high-stakes commercialism in the GCSE exam board system must be a plus. When it came to light that some examiners were selling seminars, offering insider info on teaching to the tests, Mr Bangs said the boards were in “the last chance saloon.” Calling time on that cash cow may be widely welcomed.
In addition, Steve Sinnott, the NUT General Secretary welcomed the commitment to more personalised learning, which the union itself had previously advocated. But, his overall response to the reforms was rather less than rapturous. “The pity is,” he said, “that hidden amongst outlandish ideas, the White Paper has some genuinely good proposals.” His deputy at the NUT, Kevin Courtney, felt that Mr Gove was too quick to level unjustified criticism at the achievements of both teachers and pupils. This, he said; “serves the Education Secretary well in securing headlines,” but “alienates and demoralises the profession which strives day in and day out, often in difficult circumstances, to achieve the best for all their pupils.”
So, riding that self-made wave of tepid togetherness and absent enthusiasm Mr Gove rallied the troops in February with a warning that the reforms risked fewer kids passing exams and more headteachers being sacked. Now that’s how to motivate the education profession.
Whilst his epistle of apology to Mr Montgomery is admirable, if Michael Gove seeks to say sorry to every teacher he has left disgruntled and disrespected, he’s going to need a bigger pen.