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No Minister

While targets are abandoned all round Estelle Morris seems to have stuck to her commitment. Dave Lister explores the issues behind her resignation.

eEstelle 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 not have.

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 more widely.

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 education.

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 set.

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.