Dream job, but will love of English lure him away?

21st May 2010 at 01:00
Michael Gove's former teacher remembers him as a precociously talented youngster

He has just taken up the tough job of being in charge of every teacher in England, but being a teacher in charge of Michael Gove seems to have been one of life's easier jobs.

Mike Duncan, who taught the future Education Secretary from the age of 12 at Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen, recalled Mr Gove as a pupil who was always likely to succeed.

Mr Duncan was head of English at the independent school when young Michael joined in 1979, but it was in the debating team that the future Conservative MP first came to people's attention.

"I ran the debating team, which is something Michael became involved with at a very early stage," the former teacher said. "He was a very good debater, not just internally but representing the school in debating contests, and he gained an excellent reputation for it."

He was a member of the school team which was runner-up in the 1985 Edinburgh UniversityBank of Scotland debating competition and, while a student at Oxford, took part in the world debating championships. He was also president of the Oxford Union.

It was this gift for debating that Mr Duncan believes has helped progress the Surrey Heath MP's career so far and will continue to come in handy, now he has a Cabinet seat.

"I think his debating will hold him in good stead for his career," he said. "I am not terribly surprised he has reached the position he has. Even as a teenager, he had a courtesy about him and he was always willing to listen to other people's points of view."

Mr Gove's parents, who adopted him when he was four months old and still live in Aberdeen, say he actually campaigned for Labour in his youth. But Mr Duncan recalls that his Conservative leanings quickly emerged - although it was not clear that a career in politics awaited him.

"At the time, I knew that whatever he turned his hand to, he would be successful," Mr Duncan said. "He was always very interested in politics although he was not an overtly political animal at the time. Everyone was aware that he was a Conservative supporter, however.

"But he was accepted for that, he was very much his own person and he was very well liked by his fellow pupils and the staff. He had his own clear views and people took him at face value. He would get his leg pulled, but he always took it in good part. He never took himself terribly seriously."

According to Mr Duncan, England's 43-year-old Education Secretary was far from being a "goody two-shoes" in his school days, but he always had a mature manner beyond his years.

He was a young man who had his own personality and who could talk very well to his teachers; even as a 12-year-old, he could carry on a "profound conversation with teachers" and always had a very good relationship with staff.

But it was in his studies where Mr Gove really shone at school. "He had a tremendous talent in English, both verbal and written. He was incredibly well-read, rather more so than one might expect from a sixth former," Mr Duncan said. "He read widely and he read deeply.

"I remember we had a game that we would play, where he would come up with the first line of a novel and I would have to guess the title. I would do the same and he would always guess the title correctly."

After leaving Oxford, he landed a job in the Aberdeen-based Press and Journal, where he joined striking journalists on the picket line in 1989 during a bitter dispute at the paper. He eventually rose to be an assistant editor on The Times before becoming a Westminster MP in 2005 and Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families in 2007.

Mr Duncan says he "feels passionately" about education and believes his current job is the one he always wanted (although he volunteered to give it up if that was necessary to secure a coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats).

But Mr Duncan wonders whether politics could keep Mr Gove away from his first love of English for long. "I am sure he will always be eager to go back to his writing at some point," he states.

Tartan talent

Schools are not the only educational institutions in England to have fallen under the influence of a minister with a Scottish past.

Colleges and universities south of the border are now the responsibility of Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats' former spokesman on the economy who is now Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Dr Cable was a postgraduate student at Glasgow University, before taking up a lecturing post there in political economy in the mid-1970s.

He combined his job with being a Labour city councillor in Glasgow from 1971-74, and contributed a chapter to the seminal left-wing book, The Red Paper on Scotland - edited by one Gordon Brown.

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