What a fascinating appearance by the education secretary Michael Gove at the annual conference of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).
It was all very, well, pleasant. There were no speeches to be made as Mr Gove sat comfortably on stage and was instead gently probed by Times columnist David Aaronovitch.
It wasn’t a bad interview, but Mr Gove was certainly not looking for a fight. He was on charm offensive. He was praiseful of the profession – “we have a better cohort of people in the profession than we have ever had before” – and held back on the bullish rhetoric that he has a reputation for.
The message of educational mediocrity, of failure in international league tables, of falling academic standards, or dumbed down curricula were distinctly missing. The media scrum at the back of the hall was a little disappointed.
One could almost imagine that there was an election in the air! Should we now be bracing ourselves for a year of PR and spin about how coalition policy has driven educational transformation?
Even Sir Michael Wilshaw, chief inspector of Ofsted, is helping. His announcement of inspection reforms to ease pressure on good and outstanding schools, afforded Mr Gove a perfect chance to unleash yet more praise as he backed the plans: “This step can be taken because schools are doing better than ever before,” he gleamed. “Ofsted is rightly saying that because schools have improved we can take a step back from those birds that are flying.”
Don’t worry, he hadn’t gone all misty-eyed – he was continuing a theme from ASCL president Ian Bauckham’s earlier speech which had urged our caged birds (schools) to fly (risk-take and innovate), if released from their cages (potentially reduced pressure from Ofsted).
Anyway, birds aside – the point is that this appearance couldn’t have been more of a pre-election warm-up if Mr Gove had donned the rosette and loud-hailer.
No-one expected ASCL to wheel out the stocks, and Mr Aaronovitch, on behalf of his hosts, certainly asked some probing and intelligent questions. This is certainly no criticism of interviewer or host. It is simply an observation of Mr Gove’s demeanour and approach.
He was asked tough questions about the speed and range of curriculum and qualification reform, the lack of consultation on policy, school funding, pension hikes and post-16 funding. However, he fielded them with his famous charm but without being drawn into any attack on the profession.
Of course the media does like to look for conflict, a point Mr Gove was happy to make himself when asked about how the press portrays his relationship with the profession (although the many thousands of teachers set to strike this week suggests that this is not a case of media spin).
But what was clear was that here, at the ASCL conference, he was on charm offensive. He had a mission to tell the world how great our schools are, how much they have improved, (and imply heavily that it was his doing – and that he’d very much like to continue doing it).
Nothing new was said, no positions were changed, no arguments won or lost. His support for Ofsted’s regime changes was interesting to note, but hardly surprising.
Sadly, all this meant that the memorable moments from the affair became the lighter hearted exchanges – the one question that flummoxed Mr Gove being a teasing reference to his recent comments about the “ridiculous” number of Etonians within the prime minister’s inner circle. Having dodged an initial question on the topic, the audience laughed and Mr Gove squirmed very slightly when he faced the beautifully phrased follow-up: “Would you say it’s safer for Conservative MPs to send their children to state schools than they appear to imagine?” Mr Gove still wouldn’t be drawn.
The session ended in similarly cosy style as Mr Gove was asked to rate his performance in the “first term secretary of state A level”. He adopted the bashful demeanour that the question demanded: “What matters most is the mindset and the effort rather than necessarily the actual performance.” I think that the election trail, at least for Mr Gove, has just begun.
Pete Henshaw is the editor of SecEd. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @pwhenshaw