While Michael Gove has a reputation for being a charmer behind closed doors, his public persona – particularly as far as the education establishment is concerned – is somewhat more abrasive.
So much so, in fact, that he ended up being heckled by an audience of school leaders during a bad-tempered appearance at the annual conference of the NAHT – the union with which he enjoys the closest relationship.
But if a report in The Times today is to be believed, Mr Gove is set to unleash a “charm offensive” on school leaders and teachers. As well as revealing plans for a series of autumn roadshows in which he will engage with “ordinary” school leaders, it seems he is even willing to extend the olive branch to the arch “enemies of promise” themselves: the classroom unions. Mr Gove, the newspaper reports, “has told friends that he will accept invitations to speak at all the headteachers’ and classroom teachers’ union conferences next spring, and is even ready to attend the conference of the National Union of Teachers, the most left-wing of the unions”.
Despite speaking at all the union conferences while he was shadow education minister, since joining the cabinet Mr Gove has only appeared before the headteachers’ unions. While former minister Nick Gibb was dispatched to the classroom union conferences in the early days of the coalition, this year only the ATL, the most moderate of the three largest unions, was blessed with a visit from the current schools minister, David Laws, a lib dem.
The NUT conference has traditionally had a prickly relationship with politicians. In 1995, Labour’s then education spokesman David Blunkett was infamously forced to take refuge in an office after infuriating delegates by pledging to close under-performing schools. The union later made the decision not to invite any politicians to speak. While the NASUWT does invite ministers, last year it was rebuffed for the government for the first time. Somewhat surreally, general secretary Chris Keates had to make do with addressing a cardboard cut-out of Mr Gove on stage instead.
But if Mr Gove thinks he is going to be welcomed back into the fold with open arms, he may have to think again. The NASUWT insists it has not yet made a decision on who will be invited to next year’s conference. The NUT’s response, meanwhile, was even cooler.
“We don’t invite politicians”, a spokeswoman told TES, insisting that the union has not had any official contact from the Department for Education about next year’s annual conference in Brighton, and currently had no plans to relax its ban on politicos. Mr Gove would be well advised not to rush out to buy a new bucket and spade just yet.