We have all had imaginary friends. It is part of growing up. But most of us move beyond phase that before becoming Secretary of State. Not Michael Gove, it seems. It appears he not only has imaginary friends, but discusses his policies with them.
On the Andrew Marr show on Sunday 2nd February Gove claimed, when challenged on his new policy on school discipline, that "teachers I have talked to today" agreed with him. He gave the impression he had been in a school or somewhere where teachers gather. This was odd, as the programme was broadcast live shortly after 9.30am on a Sunday morning. Had he really talked to teachers before going on?
I tried hard to find the teachers he had talked to. My tweet, seeking teachers who had been woken from their slumbers by a call from the Secretary of State, was retweeted over 100 times and reached hundreds of thousands of people. But none of them had talked to Michael Gove (though there were some very entertaining responses
). Could it be that these teachers existed only in his head?
I submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Department for Education, asking "How many teachers did Michael Gove speak to before his 9.30 Sunday appearance on Andrew Marr"? They have now responded. Instead of answering the question, the response states "I can assure you that our ministers regularly visit schools and also meet with members of the profession, including with the headteacher and teacher representative bodies."
But that wasn't my question. The Secretary of State, on national TV, told the British public not only that he had talked to teachers that morning but - crucially - that they agreed with his policy. It seems likely from the DfE response, dodging the question, that no such conversations took place.
On the one hand this is amusing but it is also serious and raises the question of whether we can trust the words of our Secretary of State for education. My colleague Janet Downs has previously caught Gove out claiming to have visited schools that don't exist
and quoting surveys that had not taken place
. In those cases it could be argued that he was confused and was not aware that what he was saying was untrue.
That is not the case here. If he had not talked to any teachers that morning then he knew, as he spoke the words, that he was lying. If that was the case, he was deliberately stating something that was not true to give the impression that his policy had more support than was actually the case. Is that really ok?
So journalists, next time that Michael Gove tells you that teachers have told him that they agree with him, please ask him this question: "Are your referring to real teachers, Michael, or to imaginary ones in your head?"
Because, Michael, those don't count.
Note: I have submitted a further FoI request, repeating my question. (I had originally assumed Gove must have talked to some teachers, but probably only to ones he knew well and would be likely to agree with him. However it now seems likely he hadn't even talked to those.)