What I overheard on the Tube tells me Gove is making the right enemies

Do all teachers feel like those ATL members who denounced the Education Secretary this week? Plus, my brushes with Berezovsky


Easter marks Michael Gove’s third conference season as the punchbag for the teaching unions, and this year he’s been treated to two warm-up bouts. First came a letter from 100 academics warning about the prescriptiveness of his national curriculum and complaining that facts and rote learning would deaden pupils’ creativity. He hit back in typically combative style. Then two days ago the supposedly moderate Association of Teachers and Lecturers passed its first-ever vote of no confidence in an Education Secretary.

But do all teachers feel like those who denounced him at the ATL? On the Tube recently, I overheard three women, two still teaching and one early-retired, lamenting the state of schools and the precipitate fall in standards, as they saw it, over the past 10 years. And, no, they didn’t appear to be Tory ladies in town for a spot of lunch. One reflected more in sorrow than anger that she’d always voted Labour, but...

Their greatest fury was reserved for coursework which, they agreed, was routinely corrected by the teacher before it was submitted, a practice that hid great gaps in pupils’ attainment. One, who had marked exams over many years, observed that she now learned more from the scripts about the teacher than the pupils. Some of the work was so standardised, she said, that it might as well have been dictated. You could tell the good teachers, she said, because their pupils’ answers varied. Those pupils who had been poorly taught, she said, gave answers that were not only depressingly uniform but often wrong in the same way. For them, Gove’s shake-up hadn’t come a moment too soon.

Now it might be that my trio were the only three in the country who think this way. Maybe, too, they had bunked off, leaving more dutiful colleagues to inscribe the week’s corrected coursework on their whiteboards. But I think Gove should take some Easter cheer. If he’s making enemies, perhaps they are the right ones, and the pupils and teachers of the future may thank him for his trouble.

My brushes with Berezovsky

I’m as partial to a conspiracy as anyone, but I’m not going to spin any fantasies about the last days of Boris Berezovsky. The oligarch’s lonely end was of a piece with the strange life he lived in Britain; the final scene of his own tragedy. I last saw him at his court case against Roman Abramovich, when two of his fatal flaws were on full display: his hubristic certainty that he would win, and overconfidence in his command of English. I opposed him in debates – he was the anti-Putin attack dog whose passion made up for what his English lacked – and I interviewed him twice.

His Mayfair offices were clinically impersonal, like an Eastern bloc hotel or a private hospital. On the tables were small sculptures that he fingered like toys. Huge black-clad  security people lurked outside and in. No door was opened before the previous one was closed. The first time he was running late and suggested I accompany him to his next appointment. Much walkie-talkie activity accompanied the arrival of his – armoured – car, which halted just long enough for me to be bundled into the back between the bodyguards. We sped off, to my utter horror, turning into one of the Royal parks, on carriage-roads I never knew existed. This high-speed drive was clearly standard practice. And what it told me was that Berezovsky was almost as far above the law in London as he had been in his heyday in wildest Moscow.

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