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for the week beginning: Monday, 21st October 2002

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- Estelle no more is (24 Oct 2002)

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Estelle no more is (24 Oct 2002)

Estelle Morris resigned yesterday evening as Secretary of State for Education. She had gained a reputation for being 'accident-prone' as a Minister.

Over the summer, the fiasco of A-level grades and the apparent manipulation of pass-rates to meet pre-determined criteria resulted, in a significant number of cases, in examination results which bore no relationship to students' course work and in many cases to 'mock' examinations earlier in the year. Naturally there is never an exact match, but the scale of the discrepancies eventually forced an inquiry which discovered that the introduction of the AS-level examination and the late decisions about grade boundaries for A-levels were an 'accident waiting to happen' according to the writer of the inquiry report, Mr  Mike Tomlinson. Prior to the report being published it was alleged by Sir William Stubbs, chairman of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), that Ms Morris had intervened with those carrying out the inquiry in an effort to influence its outcome. Estelle Morris denied this vehemently and dismissed Sir William within one hour of the report being published.

To some extent Ms Morris was faced with a fait accompli in that much of the re-organisation of education and examinations had been planned during the time of her predecessor, Mr David Blunkett, now Home Secretary [incidentally, this gentleman appears to be making a pigs-ear of that job, too, with his ill-considered use of inflammatory language in relation to immigration and asylum-seekers and other matters].

Much is being made, by the Labour government, of the 'fact' that the AS-level had been introduced under the previous Conservative government, specially as the Conservative Party has of late been strongly critical of the AS-level and called for its abolition. As with much in politics, particularly since this Labour government came to power in 1997,  there seems to be rather a lot of 'spin' in this particular issue in that, so far as I can discover, whilst it is apparently true that the AS-level was proposed under the last Conservative administration (a policy stance which that Party now regrets, it seems), it is the 'fact' that the AS-level was introduced under Labour and it seems to be agreed that they could have halted its implementation if they had wished to do so.

More recently, Ms Morris attempted to intervene ultra vires in a case involving the finding of an independent inquiry into cases of pupil misbehaviour which had resulted in two boys being excluded from their school. The inquiry found that the Head of the school and the Board of Governors had acted incorrectly in excluding the boys and found that they should be re-instated at the school; the teachers and, it seems, many of the other pupils and their families were opposed to the re-instatement of the two and the teachers threatened industrial action if it were attempted. The family of one of the boys accepted that he could not return to the school, but the family of the other wished the finding of the independent inquiry to be upheld, as was their legal right. Estelle Morris attempted to overturn the ruling until it was pointed out that her powers as Secretary of Sate did not give her any right to do this. The situation appears to have been 'resolved' when it became clear to the second family that it was not practical for them to continue to seek their son's re-instatement and they accepted he would have to go elsewhere to continue his education. It seems just as bizarre to me as it seems to have been to Estelle Morris  that the inquiry should have ruled as it did (and it seems clear that the role and composition of such boards of independent inquiry needs to be looked at for the future), but that is not the point; Ms Morris attempted to intervene, no doubt from the best of motives, in a matter which was not within her ministerial competence - and was rightly slapped-down by the Local Authority. It is all a matter of political 'nous' and being aware of what is and is not legally and politically acceptable.

Many within the Labour Party, the teaching profession and the professional media are expressing 'shock' at her sudden resignation; they contend that for Estelle Morris the worst was over and that she should simply have kept her head down and ridden out the storm. Perhaps, but I think that Ms Morris is, for her courageous decision to resign, meriting of considerable respect. She seems to be a person of complete integrity who has been promoted to a role for which she was not entirely suited; her letter of resignation is admirably honest when she writes: "I have learned what I am good at and also what I am less good at. I am good at dealing with the issues and in communicating to the teaching profession. I am less good at strategic management of a huge department and I am not good at dealing with the modern media."

In recent years, under this Labour government and under the last Conservative government, there has been an increasing reluctance for Ministers to accept final responsibility for the activities of their Departments; the last 'honourable' ministerial resignation was roughly twenty years ago when Lord Carrington resigned as Foreign Secretary in the wake of the Falklands debacle. I hope that the fine example set by Estelle Morris may perhaps set a better example for others to follow in future. If the Prime Minister can find a more suitable role in government for Ms Morris, as he has implied it to be his intention, then I am sure she has a lot to offer whilst Labour remain in power.

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Copyright © 2002 William Cameron