The Refined Radical: Michael Gove Is One of David Cameron's Key Lieutenants. He Has Immense Charm and a Fascinating Personal Story. but Is He Too Clever for His Own Good?

Article excerpt

Soon after Michael Gove was given the shadow education portfolio in July 2007, he went to a Conservative think-tank meeting with the great and the good among academy sponsors. When questions from the floor were taken, I accused the biggest academy sponsor, the United Learning Trust, of running its schools in a "Stalinist way". The ULT's chief executive, Ewan Harper, huffed and puffed and then Gove said: "I should just point out that Francis Beckett wrote a fine book on British communism. So I think you can take it he meant Stalinist as a compliment."

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I arrived ready to loathe the man, and left entranced by him, taking his mobile telephone number on the way out. A few weeks ago, I called him. He answered at once. Was I really writing about him for the New Statesman? How delightful! Why didn't I come in for a cup of tea? Would Tuesday week suit me? Tuesday week was 24 August, GCSE results day, but Gove had plenty of time to chat and pose for photographs. It was never this easy getting time with his Labour predecessors and the pressure of the next appointment always weighed heavy on the interview.

Gove, unusually for a politician, likes talking to people who disagree with him. In 1996, the editor of the Times, Peter Stothard (now editor of the Times Literary Supplement), appointed Gove as a leader writer. "What sets him apart," he says now, "is that he has the precious skill of making people who don't agree with him like him and respect him. He is persuasive in a personal sense. People who don't agree with him start agreeing with him a bit.

"It is surprising how few politicians can do that. At Times leader conferences we had people of widely differing opinions and it was surprising how much people would come towards Michael's position."

Richard Garner, education editor at the Independent and the elder statesman of the education correspondents, watched in admiration as Gove charmed the Association of Teachers and Lecturers conference. "They got the idea of someone who might almost agree with them. He has a wonderful gift of talking up areas where there may be agreement."

Gove doesn't look or sound like a charmer: with his scrunched-up face, splayed feet and quick but oddly awkward movements, he bounces about and squeaks. He is rather like a highly intelligent hobbit. If Bilbo Baggins studied English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, he'd turn into Michael Gove.

He doesn't sound like a right-winger, either, but on some educational matters he's pretty hardline. He rushed through the Academies Act, which became law before July was out, too fast for the Liberal Democrats to marshal resistance. According to Ed Balls, his predecessor and now his shadow, Gove's academies are nothing like Labour's and will create permanent inequality: "He has removed local authorities entirely, removed the need for a sponsor, and offered academy status to the highest-performing schools. Academies worked because they could turn round underperforming schools. He has reshaped it as a rebirth of the grant-maintained schools of the 1990s. It will end in entrenching disadvantage."

Gospel according to Rita

The Academies Act invites heads and governors to consider how they "might wish to inform staff, pupils and parents of the intended conversion". The sponsor has an inbuilt majority on the governing body and parents do not have a right to more than one representative. Yet Gove claims to be on the side of parents. So, is there any chance of him allowing them any say? The short answer is no. Here is part of the long answer he gave me:

"If we think about the relationship that most of us have with the schools where our children are educated, theoretically, democratic accountability comes through the local authority. Very few of us, if pushed, could name the lead member of children's services in the authority where our children are educated. Most of us would be able to name the head teacher of the school our children go to. …