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Gove to miss heads' union conference after angry reception from school leaders

Michael Gove has reneged on a commitment to attend the annual conference of heads' union the NAHT, after being jeered by delegates at last year’s event.

A year ago, the education secretary (pictured) was given a rough ride at the heads union's conference in Birmingham. During a bad tempered exchange, he appeared to be ruffled by questions from the audience, with several of his answers being greeted with groans and ironic laughter in what was one of the angriest receptions Mr Gove has received since coming into office in 2010.

Despite accepting an invitation to speak at this year’s event several months ago, the NAHT was informed less than three weeks before the start of the conference, which gets underway next week, that Mr Gove would not be attending due to a personal commitment. It is not clear whether events at last year's conference may have had a bearing on his decision.

The Department for Education told TES that Mr Gove was unable to attend due to "diary commitments", and that junior education minister Liz Truss would be speaking at the event in his place. A spokesman said Ms Truss would be "perfectly well-suited to represent the department at the event".

NAHT general secretary Russell Hobby said he was disappointed that Mr Gove would not be attending. “It’s a missed opportunity for engaging with the profession, and finding out how we are working to make a success of education policy,” he said.

At last year’s event, Mr Gove was told by delegates that they were suffering from stress brought on by reforms, testing and Ofsted.

In response, he told the conference: “If you think Ofsted is causing you fear I am grateful for your candour, but we are going to have to part company.”

Afterwards, the education secretary hit back in the pages of The Times, labelling his critics “defeatists”.

Mr Gove reserved particular ire for last year’s NAHT president Bernadette Hunter, who in her maiden speech compared him to a "fanatical personal trainer" who pays "no heed to the underlying damage" caused by his whirlwind of reforms.

In his strongly worded response, Mr Gove said his reforms were "designed to ensure children are liberated from ignorance", adding: "That's why it's so depressing when the response from someone (Ms Hunter) affecting to speak on behalf of the profession is a direct attack on the principle of setting higher expectations.”

Later, Ms Hunter told TES: "Everyone has the occasional bad day. We're not going to hold it against him."

Last month, Mr Gove appeared at the annual conference of the other head's union, the Association of School and College Leaders. The NAHT conference starts on 2 May.

This morning, the NAHT also announced plans for a new affiliate trade union for middle leaders such as assistant principals and heads of department. The spin-off, called NAHT Edge, aims to have around 5,000 members, and will be led by Louis Coiffait, formerly head of research in the Pearson think tank.

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