Sorry I was such a rebel, says Gove. Not a bit of it – you were a goody two-shoes, says his teacher

Education Secretary makes grovelling apology in letter, but mentor of 30 years ago remembers things differently

It is something that most of Britain's teachers could only dream about – receiving a written apology from Michael Gove.

But rather than expressing contrition over his controversial GCSE reforms or drive to create more free schools, the Education Secretary has apologised to his French teacher for misbehaving in lessons 30 years ago.

In an open letter to Daniel Montgomery, a teacher at Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen where Mr Gove was educated, he claims he was one of a "cocksure crew of precociously assertive boys who recognised you were only a few years older – a rookie in the classroom – and therefore ripe for ragging."

He continues: "When I look back at the 15-year-old I was, lurking at the back of your French class... I cringe."

However, Mr Gove's former teacher – who is still teaching at the school – promptly wrote a glowing letter back to his former pupil, saying he in fact remembered him for his "sharp wit, strongly held beliefs, backed by apparently limitless general knowledge and keen debating skills, which resulted in the downfall of many opponents."

"I remember the words of one of my colleagues at the time: 'That boy is a future leader of the Conservative party'," Mr Montgomery added.

Mr Gove's mea culpa – in which he praises the profession and argues that "respect for teachers is growing" – was immediately greeted with derision by teachers' leaders.

"The Secretary of State's words are really welcome," said Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. "Isn't it a pity, therefore, that the once cocksure and precociously assertive boy of 15 who admits not treating his teacher with respect is repeating history, not with one teacher, but with 450,000 of them who feel deprofessionalised and hugely demoralised as a result of his policies?"

Adrian Prandle, of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, added: "We are delighted that Mr Gove has finally realised that he is sometimes wrong and misguided in his views... [but] an apology in 30 years' time won't help today's pupils and will be far too late to undo the damage he is doing to education in this country. If he is going to write to all the teachers he has offended, he will have a full-time occupation for the next 10 years."

The Education Secretary's letter is published in today's Radio Times as his contribution to this year's Teaching Awards, which will be aired by BBC2 next Sunday. In it, he tells Mr Montgomery: "You were trying patiently, doggedly, good-humouredly, to broaden our horizons. You were, without any pretension or pomposity, attempting to coax a group of hormonal lads to look beyond familiar horizons and venture further... [yet] all we could do was compete to think of clever-dick questions to embarrass you and indulge in pathetic showing-off at your expense."

Referring to his former teacher as "Danny", the letter concludes: "It may be too late to say I'm sorry. But, as my mum told me, it's never too late to set the record straight. You were a great teacher – one of many who helped introduce me to the work of great thinkers and writers and thus gave me the greatest gift of all – the chance to write my own life story."

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "I take this open letter as an apology to the profession... and a recognition that teachers do an amazing job."