Estelle Morris comers from a political family
- both her father and uncle were Labour MPs. Despite, famously,
failing 'A' Levels she qualified as a teacher and taught in
a Coventry secondary school for 18 years. This gave her a
certain credibility with teachers and their unions.
Like Charles Clarke she was a junior minister under David
Blunkett and replaced him when he was elevated to the Home
Office. Sixteen months later she resigned under intense media
pressure after a series of misjudgements, not all of her making.
Why did she quit?
It was really the coincidence of four troublesome issues
for Estelle emerging during the late summer and early autumn
of this year and the media reaction to these that lead her
to question her own suitability for high office and then to
act on her conclusion.
Firstly, Capita had been awarded a £400 million contract
to run police checks on teachers and other school staff at
the Criminal Records Bureau. Apparently, after the Soham murders,
the requirements were tightened up. Estelle Morris returned
from holiday to find the first phase of her personal nightmare
unfolding. Children had to be sent home across the country
because checks on new teachers had not come through and they
therefore could not be allowed into classrooms. When she eased
the requirement the Minister was then perceived to have climbed
down on this issue.
Secondly, there followed almost immediately a further spot
of bother over results for the new style 'A' Level examinations.
There appeared to be discrepancies in marking, with students
obtaining very high grades, often grade A, in examination
papers and then failing completely on their coursework. The
Observer quoted from an internal memorandum from an OCR (Oxford,
Cambridge and RSA) examiner affirming that some grades had
been deflated. The general explanation for this crude attempt
to lower the pass rate is that the pattern of continuing improvement
in 'A' Level results had been met with scepticism in some
quarters. Hence this attempt to lessen the rate of improvement
in a year when a new-style examination had been introduced.
The head that rolled pretty quickly once investigations had
started was that of Sir William Stubbs, the head of the Qualifications
and Curriculum Authority. He suggested that Estelle Morris's
head should roll also. She did admit that the speed of the
Government's agenda in introducing the new two-tier AS / A2
examination system had created difficulties. The Times Educational
Supplement (TES) (04.10.02) quoted a QCA insider as saying:
"They wanted it yesterday and it was always going to be a
fudge as a result". She also faced an onslaught from some
sections of the press, with The Sun in particular calling
for her resignation. The TES suggested that not since the
time of John Patten had a Secretary of State for Education
faced hostility on this scale. But she did not go ..yet.
Meanwhile the real victims of this chicanery, the students,
did not fare well. 30,000 scripts were reviewed but only 168
students received sufficient additional marks to enable them
to take up a place at their first choice university. Large
numbers of teachers, students and their parents were infuriated
at the failure to make full amends for what had been done.
Thirdly, this is the point at which I, for one, became convinced
that Estelle Morris had 'lost it'. Two pupils were expelled
from a Surrey secondary school for issuing death threats to
a teacher. They were then reinstated by an independent appeals
panel, prompting outrage in the popular press. This in turn
prompted the Minister to intervene and ask Surrey County Council
to find alternative educational provision for these boys.
Now it is the case that there are new regulations in the
pipeline that will make it very difficult for appeal panels
to reinstate in such circumstances. However these regulations
were not on the statute book when Estelle Morris intervened.
The procedures in relation to pupil exclusion are very clear.
They do not include any role for the Minister. It was just
as if the Home Secretary had asked for a ruling of the High
Court to be ignored. She was assuming powers that she did
Fourthly, the final blow was delivered by the nation's 11
year olds. Their Key Stage Two SATs results in English and
Maths, though showing a significant upward trend over time,
failed to reach the targets set in 1997 by 5% and 2% respectively.
It was well remembered that David Blunkett had pledged to
resign if these targets were not met, but he had fortuitously
moved to the Home Office. What was not so well remembered
was that Estelle Morris had made a similar promise.
Unfortunately for her, chapter and verse were provided and
she was obliged to apologise. Sections of the right-wing press
were now joined by the Tories in baying for her blood. Quartered,
she handed in her resignation, characteristically and bluntly
admitting that she was not up to the job, she had not been
as effective as she might have been. She felt that she had
handled the issues and relations with teachers well but not
the running of a large department and, perhaps most importantly,
she had not handled the media well.
Her successor, Charles Clarke, has a reputation as a 'bruiser',
but perhaps it would be more meaningful to expect that he
will be more effective, in some ways, more confident and handle
the press with more assurance than his predecessor. What is
unlikely is that there will be any real shifts in policy,
although Clarke has already asserted himself by questioning
the 'five-tier hierarchy' of schools that have arisen, although
not specialist schools, for which he is an enthusiast, and
suggesting that Ofsted should conduct 'light touch' inspections
My periodic reviews of new Labour education policy have generally
resulted in a verdict that it has both positive and negative
features. There seems little reason to alter this verdict
at this juncture. Resourcing has greatly improved. Programmes
like 'Excellence in Cities' are, on balance, targeting additional
resources where they are most needed. The standards agenda
appears to have lead to improvements in primary children's
literacy and numeracy. The Key Stage Three strategy is now,
most justifiably, extending this to the early years of secondary
On the other side of the scale is the dilution of the comprehensive
principle (well analysed in a recent Catalyst Working Paper
'Selection isn't working' by Tony Edwards and Sally Tomlinson).
The challenge to grammar schools by New Labour has been laughable.
The introduction of specialist schools threatens to produce
a two-tier system under which some schools are well funded,
popular and able to attract more able students and others
are less favoured in all ways.
The testing regime, although it has some positive aspects,
has placed too much stress on teachers and pupils, unrealistic
rather than challenging targets can demoralise and be counter-productive.
(70-75% Level 4 was one thing. But 85%!). Some new powers
in the 2002 Education Act, such as for schools to form companies
and for governing bodies to be deregulated, do not appear
to relate to what is really needed or to what people on the
ground actually want.
It is notable that only one of the four issues
cited as bringing about Estelle Morris's downfall is listed
above. The backlog of CRB checks, the alleged doctoring of
the 'A' Level results and her ill-judged intervention on pupil
exclusions are all more particular than general issues. (To
the extent that Capita might be blamed for the police checks
fiasco, the Government's privatisation agenda could be called
into question by the first issue however). The failure to
meet Key Stage Two targets is the only issue that can be seen
as central to this Government's education agenda. Already
Charles Clarke has responded to this by suggesting that there
are too many education targets, whilst also stating that he
cannot say that any individual target should never have been
This makes it unlikely that Clarke will go for a major change
of course, even if there was any possibility that Tony Blair
would let him. There may be minor changes in particular policies
and different emphases, but there is as yet no reason to suspect
that we will not be receiving, largely, more of the same,
particularly as, to the best of my knowledge, no new legislation,
apart from the regulations following from the 2002 Act, is
planned for the foreseeable future.
But already there are clouds on the horizon. The former President
of the National Union of Students Charles Clarke is going
to have to handle the very tricky issue of funding the plans
for up to 50% of school leavers to enter higher education.
It may well be that, like Edith Piaf, Estelle Morris 'ne regrette
rien' in relation to her decision to resign.