Fresh from high-profile rows with MPs and teaching unions, Michael Gove has run into a new foe – a 16-year-old schoolboy incensed by the Education Secretary's condemnation of educational standards in his area.
Paul Willis has written a public letter condemning Mr Gove for "insulting" teachers, pupils and parents in East Durham after he asserted that the area was a "prime example" of one where schools were "dogged by a problem of ambition in certain traditional communities".
The Education Secretary sparked a huge row in the North-east last month when he warned he could "smell the sense of defeatism" in some North-east schools – and singled out East Durham for special criticism. Amid a furious response from the county's teachers and MPs, Mr Gove admitted that he had never visited a school in the area – and that his comments were based on a "telling remark" made to a former Labour education minister a decade ago.
Paul, who is studying for 12 GCSEs at St Bede's Catholic Comprehensive School in Peterlee – which Mr Gove claimed had "underperformed dramatically" – was infuriated by the "abhorrent" observations, and immediately wrote a letter demanding an apology. He plans to deliver the message personally when he travels to London for a school trip in May.
"My school refuses to accept defeatism," he wrote. "The word infers that teachers do not care for the students and that students do not care for their education. This is entirely untrue.
"My personal ambition is to become a doctor and world-class sprinter; would Mr Gove call me defeatist? Apparently so."
Paul, from Wheatley Hill, County Durham, added: "I personally am dismayed that a representative of government could insult the very fibre of not only schools in the East Durham area but, through them, the efforts and strivings of each and every state school and faith school in England.
"I can find no reason why Mr Gove, himself once a student of state education, can make worthless the prized work of our schools."
Mr Gove insisted he had not been criticising local parents, but had the Labour-run council in mind.
But, under pressure from Labour MPs, he said his observation was based on the assessment of a local teacher who told the then Labour education secretary, Lord Adonis, at least 10 years ago that: "In the past, children turned right to work in the shipyards or left to work in the coal mines. Now they might as well walk on into the sea."
Sedgefield MP Phil Wilson, who has invited Mr Gove to his local comprehensive, said: "It is his use of language that is so wrong. It knocks the confidence of these schools, when we need to build that confidence up. Schools are improving, but they need to improve more."
But the Education Secretary appears unmoved. A source close to Mr Gove said: "Last year, in East Durham, just 80 pupils out of more than 1,000 got good grades in the subjects valued by universities and employers.
"Durham County Council have themselves identified educational failure in East Durham. This failure puts a cap on young people's aspirations and just isn't good enough. The Education Secretary stands by his comments and is determined to do better for the children of East Durham."
St Bede's is 'my rock'
Dear Mr Gove
My name is Paul Willis and I am studying at St Bede's Catholic Comprehensive in East Durham, and I am in my final year of GCSEs.
I find it abhorrent that a man who has failed to adequately provide a source for his comments, a man who is supposedly the best candidate for his position, can so readily chastise and indeed insult the hard work of not only students and teachers in East Durham, but also of parents and guardians who strive to give the children the greatest start in life.
Mr Gove, despite his efforts to appear 'in touch', comes from a background entirely dissimilar from that of many youths in East Durham. I come from a proud working-class family who get by through hard work and determination.
As a mining area, the North-east as a whole can be spoken of in such a way. Mr Gove is slighting the stout men and women who trudge on despite the recession and government cuts imposed for "the better good". He is out of touch with the North. He is out of touch with today's youth. He is out of touch with us.
My school refuses to accept defeatism. The word infers that teachers do not care for the students, and that students do not care for their education. This is entirely untrue.
My personal ambition is to become a doctor and world-class sprinter; would Mr Gove call me defeatist? Apparently so.
I hope to become a poet and a writer and someone of worth; would he consider me defeatist? So he says.
I personally am dismayed that a representative of government could insult the very fibre of not only schools in the East Durham area but, through them, the efforts and strivings of each and every state school and faith school in England.
I can find no reason why Mr Gove, himself once a student of state education, can make worthless the prized work of our schools. As the old saying goes, "you can't tar all the people with the same brush".
We're all individuals and we all have a chance to better ourselves. If a small minority do not wish to try, that is their own failing and should not be reflected on their more ambitious counterparts.
I love my school, even with its few small failings, because we cannot hope to understand how valuable our education is without seeing what we would be without it.
With great interest I would offer Mr Gove the chance to visit my school, if only to show him that there exist those who will not bow to the claims and false credence he has stained us with.
St Bede's has been my rock, my lighthouse in a storm, and in times of difficulty I have always known where I could turn: to the support and inspiration of St Bede's; a school that is not defeatist.
It is forever optimistic.
A proud student of St Bede's and Byron College