Geekishly attractive

The Tory education spokesman is a journalist with charm, a big brain and a curious past.

In 1983, a fourth-former at Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen stood as the Labour candidate in the school elections and, after a staunch effort, was disappointed to come last. The peeved schoolboy was Michael Gove, now the Conservative shadow education secretary.

The son of a fish merchant, Gove had attended state primaries before going to the fee-paying Robert Gordon's, winning a scholarship while he was there. After that it was Oxford, where he got a taste for politics, put his Labour aberration behind him and became president of the Union. And from there it was back to Aberdeen as a cub reporter with the Press and Journal.

While still learning the trade, he was caught up in a year-long strike over union recognition. Calm and softly spoken, Gove was chosen to be the strikers' spokesman. A colleague of the time recalls: "We were pleased to have an ex-president of the Oxford Union speaking on behalf of us." Gove was very much the gentleman picketer. "Big-bearded trade union fatties would re-arrange their shifts to be on the picket line with him because he was so entertaining."

Losing his job, he moved to Scottish Television, where he soon impressed the political producer, John Brown, brother of Gordon. "He was a very thoughtful young man," John Brown remembers. "I'm not at all surprised he's where he is now. He was attractive . . . in a geekish sort of way." One of Gove's first jobs was interviewing Gordon, then the shadow DTI secretary, as they stood freezing in Rosyth naval dockyard.

There followed stints with the BBC's On the Record and the Today programme, where between shifts he wrote a biography of Michael Portillo. In 1996 he joined the Times, where he writes a column to this day, and two years ago he added the letters MP to his name. (The previous Tory MP for Surrey Heath, Nick Hawkins, had been forced out for not being "a team player" and Gove charmed the selection committee.) He became shadow education secretary this year.

It has been a dizzying career as well as an improbable one, and he owes his success mainly to a titanic brain. That is the first thing his colleagues mention when asked about him, the second being his gift of self-deprecation. For a clever man, in fact, he is strikingly uncerebral: he writes about puppies, his preference in hosiery (charcoal woollen socks) and the debacle of his seventh driving test. He frets about looking like a girl on Newsnight Review and about the difficulty of finding logo-free polo shirts.

Lately, though, weightier matters have been on Gove's mind. He has just presented a Conservative green paper on education, coming up with gutsy ideas including reading at six, parents starting their own schools, monitored discipline and classes based on ability. A party strategist says: "The process of putting these policies together was quite different to past methods. There were no ivory tower instructions from Cameron's office. It was very much Michael, Nick [Gibb, shadow schools minister] and James [O'Shaughnessy, head of research and policy]."

The influence of a team of educationalists, some advice from the Policy Exchange think tank and O'Shaughnessy's long experience with the education brief combined to give them boldness. "This was a collegiate approach based on the confidence we have in our own team," a Cameron aide said. "It's becoming increasingly obvious that is something Gordon Brown lacks."

The proposal that pupils should have basic reading by six years of age was cautiously received by education bigwigs. Were Gove's team disappointed? "Not really, you just expect it from the establishment, especially a tired education establishment. This is controversial territory, controversial territory that has led to 40 per cent of children claiming free school meals leaving school unable to read or write properly."

One possible solution is phonics, a teaching style that does away with the names of letters and concentrates on sounds. The Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, said the Tory proposals were "hastily cobbled together". Not true. As far back as 2001, Iain Duncan Smith sat with a class of six-year-olds in Tower Hamlets, diligently repeating C-A-T, M-A-T, S-A-T, before returning to Central Office having seen the light.

Gove has also been back to school recently, teaching teenage girls English at the Harris Academy in Bermondsey. He describes the experience as "scary but great fun. It taught me a huge amount about patience." He also talks with enthusiasm about his own schooling: "My education shaped my life, I believe it was the most important factor in my life and added an extra element to the way I look at things." Perhaps that flirtation with Labour played its part.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, China