'Everyone has bad days. We won't hold it against him'

24th May 2013 at 01:00
How the education secretary clashed with 28,500 school leaders

It has been a week that Bernadette Hunter will not forget. Just a week ago, she was installed as the new president of the UK's NAHT headteachers' union. But within 24 hours of taking up the prestigious post, Ms Hunter had provoked the wrath of Michael Gove, education secretary for England, and inadvertently found herself at the centre of a media frenzy.

After a bad-tempered reception at the NAHT's annual conference in Birmingham, where he was jeered by the audience of school leaders, Mr Gove hit back in the pages of newspaper The Times, labelling his critics "defeatists".

But, in an unprecedented turn of events, he also launched a stinging personal attack on Ms Hunter, headteacher of William Shrewsbury Primary School (for children aged 4-11) in the Midlands.

In her maiden speech as president, she compared the minister 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 insists that his reforms are "designed to ensure children are liberated from ignorance".

"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," he writes.

Ms Hunter told TES that she had been "hurt" by Mr Gove's words. "It did seem very personal," she said. "I was just really disappointed when I read it.

"I was really quite hurt that he was saying we were defeatist and moaning. Anyone who was present at the conference could see that wasn't the case. It was very optimistic; it was a very exciting and productive conference.

"We are sometimes critical but only when we feel it is in the best interests of children. We are also constructive - in my mind, that's not moaning.

"We are really ambitious about raising standards for ourselves. I am just speaking on behalf of 28,500 school leaders. We want to achieve excellence in education but we want to do that without destroying the profession."

Delegates at the conference told Mr Gove that they were being put under extreme pressure by schools inspectorate Ofsted. "The culture we've got at the moment is one of bullying and fear," said Denise Wells, headteacher of Field House Infant School in the Midlands.

In response, Mr Gove said that he was "not going to stop" demanding higher standards, adding: "If Ofsted causes you stress, then I'm grateful for your candour but we are going to have to part company."

In his piece for The Times, he contrasts heads who "reject the drive for higher expectations as a cause of 'stress' and 'worry' " with those "genuinely world-beating heads" who are "embracing these reforms in defiance of the pessimists and fatalists".

"Encountering defeatism only underlines how important it is to press ahead further and faster with reform," he adds.

While Mr Gove is no stranger to controversy, his attack on Ms Hunter follows hot on the heels of his public - and widely reported - criticism of a teaching resource that suggested that older students write Mr Men books for young children to explain the rise of Hitler.

The author of the resource, history teacher Russel Tarr, was quickly identified and felt compelled to hit back at Mr Gove for vilifying his work.

The NAHT - which tends to have a more constructive relationship with government than the harder-line classroom teacher unions - passed votes of no confidence on several of Mr Gove's policies.

But Ms Hunter said she was optimistic that the NAHT could continue to engage in a "productive debate" with the minister. "I hope that was a one-off," she said.

"Everyone has the occasional bad day. We're not going to hold it against him."

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