Michael Gove has been accused by one of the Tories' most senior figures in local government of resorting to "bully boy tactics" to drum up support for his flagship academies and to undermine traditional schools.
In a scathing letter to the education secretary, the leader of Lancashire county council says it is "incredulous" that he fails to acknowledge improvements in schools still under the control of local education authorities.
Geoff Driver, a Conservative who represents Preston North on the county council, turned on Gove in a five-page letter after the education secretary said in a letter to Lancashire MPs that its schools were under-performing. His letter followed a warning in July by Dr Elizabeth Sidwell, the schools commissioner for England, that primary schools in the county would thrive as academies "rather than staying under the control of the local authority, which clearly isn't working".
Driver said Sidwell reached her conclusion after visiting schools that had already been rated by Ofsted as outstanding before they became academies.
Calling for Gove to instruct his officials to "become far less confrontational", the council leader said: "I am singularly unimpressed by … bully boy tactics and I would be really interested to know what you think you have achieved by this latest action and how you think it will improve the education and life chances of Lancashire's children and young people."
Driver said the data Gove had used to question the performance of schools in Lancashire was simply wrong. He added: "Indeed, the correct information provides a good indication of the excellent progress this Conservative administration is making in improving the education and life chances of children and young people in Lancashire."
Driver wrote that 52% of Lancashire's schools were rated as good or outstanding by Ofsted when the Conservatives took control of the county in 2009. This has risen to 72% this year.
Driver said he accepted that academies could make improvements. Academy Accrington has improved by 28 percentage points over the past four years. But he said Millfield high school improved by 29 points in partnership with the local education authority and other schools.
"One of the most disappointing aspects of your letter is that not only do you fail to recognise fully the significant improvements we have made since we took control of the county council in 2009 but you credit those improvements that you do acknowledge to the schools and the teachers without giving this administration any credit at all," Driver wrote. "Frankly, I find that incredulous!"
Graham Jones, the Labour MP for Hyndburn, said: "Geoff Driver is absolutely right in what he says. Michael Gove is head of a dysfunctional department which, under his leadership, has driven a wedge between himself and the people that he trusts to deliver his academy programme.
"What's more shocking is that Lancashire county council is a Conservative-run local authority – his desire to grab headlines has put him at odds with people in his own party. He is absolutely wrong if he thinks the country is united in support of what he is doing to local authority education provision, not even in his own party."
"As a retiring member of the county council myself, I know that Geoff doesn't suffer fools gladly. The letter is damning, and raises questions about Michael Gove's capability to deliver his own programme as secretary of state."
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