MICHAEL Gove sparked fury yesterday (February 28) when he warned he could "smell the sense of defeatism" in some North-East schools.
The Education Secretary picked out "East Durham" as a prime example of where schools were dogged by a "problem of ambition in certain traditional communities".
Mr Gove said his target was not local parents, who shared the dream of the vast majority for their children to "have the chance to go to university".
Instead, he turned his fire on the lack of choice and on Labour-run Durham County Council, saying: "When you go into those schools, you can smell the sense of defeatism."
The comments, following a speech in London, angered - and mystified - local Labour MPs and educationalists alike.
Both Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) and Grahame Morris (Easington) insisted they could not remember Mr Gove visiting a single school in East Durham, in almost three years in the job.
Mr Wilson demanded that the Education Secretary come to Parliament to explain himself.
He told MPs: "This is a slur on the hard-working teachers, parents and students in the area.
"Why is he talking down our schools and young people? Will he come to the House to apologise to schools in East Durham?"
And Mr Morris said afterwards: "Michael Gove's comments are outrageous and an insult to every parent, teacher and child in East Durham, who are striving to improve standards and grades.
"He has never been to a school in East Durham and all he can smell is his own prejudice against children from working class families."
The Northern Echo put a series of questions to the department for education (Dfe) asking:
- On what evidence the Education Secretary based his views about East Durham schools?
- How many schools he has visited in the area?
- Whether has been told of "defeatism" by any heads, teachers or parents in East Durham?
There was no response.
However, Mr Gove has previously name-checked Durham, when accusing some local education authorities (LEAs) of being too slow to act to turn around failing schools.
During Wednesday night's speech, to mark the launch of a book on struggling schools, Mr Gove had argued almost all pupils had the ability to achieve five good grades at GCSE.
But, in questions afterwards, he highlighted what he believed was a lingering "culture of low expectations" in some communities.
"There is a real problem of ambition in certain traditional communities, like East Durham, which needs to change," he said.
"It's often not the parents. We know that something like 95 per cent of parents from working class homes want their child to have the chance to go to university. The aspiration is there.
"It is the case that there's no choice, the local council has been one party for many years and when you go into those schools you can smell the sense of defeatism."
Lesley Powell, principal at Shotton Hall Academy said: "We offer outstanding educational opportunities at the Academy and students, parents, staff and governors are justly proud of the school and highly value the contribution it makes to the local community."
While Durham County Council's Labour leader Simon Henig said there had been tremendous improvements across the county over recent years, exceeding the national average.
"Has Michael Gove ever been to a school in east Durham, or east Durham or even Durham? His comments bear no relation to the good work that staff and students have done. He's completely out of touch," he said.
Mike McDonald, regional secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said Mr Gove was "hell-bent on privatising education".
"Because the people of Durham and elsewhere in the North are not embracing that with the sort of enthusiasm he would wish to see, he's targeting these areas," he said. "It's a politically motivated and driven agenda."
Harriet Harman, deputy leader of the Labour Party, who was in Consett as part of the partys Older Womens Commission, also attacked the comments, saying: "The very last thing that you want is a Secretary of State just disparaging and condemning an area and all of the people in it."
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