Morris faces her toughest test over A-levels

26 Sep 02
Estelle Morris's political prospects had been looking so promising. Popular with teachers and the public alike, it seemed a certainty that she would be a long-standing and well-liked education secretary.

27 September 2002

But it has all gone horribly wrong over the past month, and Morris will need nerves of steel and all her political nous to see off any attempts to unseat her as she tries to turn around the continuing crisis in the education world over the next few weeks.

She has had an eventful year. As well as criticism from the education select committee over her scrapping of adult individual learning accounts, Morris had to head off the first plans for national industrial action over pay in 30 years, and she was probably feeling happy with her achievements as she sat by the pool in Australia in August.

But back in London, trouble was brewing. Following the murders of schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, the Department for Education and Skills issued panicky instructions to the Criminal Records Bureau to complete background checks on all new teaching staff by the start of term.

When Morris returned, it became apparent that the CRB could not complete the job on time, and she was forced to revert to her policy of allowing new staff to start work without the full CRB check, which was designed to prevent paedophiles working with children. It was an embarrassing U-turn.

But worse was to come and it is clear that the current scandal over A-level marking has floored her.

Tory party leader Iain Duncan Smith has described it as the most serious crisis to hit education in living memory, and Morris must know that he is right.

The stress has taken its toll on the normally laid-back politician. She came out fighting at the start of the furore, refuting allegations that the government had intervened or interfered with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority or the exam boards over ensuring exam standards are maintained.

'It would be entirely wrong for us or any government of any persuasion, to get involved in any aspect of marking, assessing or grading students,' she said.

But she had lost her trademark relaxed style and looked anxious and under pressure at her own press conference.

Now with the threat of legal action from those students whose lives may be permanently affected, she will know this week whether the initial findings from the independent inquiry point to any wrongdoing. With former Ofsted chief inspector Mike Tomlinson at the helm, she can expect a measured and responsible inquiry.

Morris's popularity among the teaching unions and the Local Government Association could save her career.

LGA education chair Graham Lane says: 'If you look at the facts rather than resort to hysteria you will see that she has done nothing wrong.

'The CRB cock-up was not her fault in any way. The CRB contract was set up by the Home Office back in March and even then there was no way they could have done this work in time for September. She took immediate action when she had to.'

According to Lane, the marking scandal is 'puzzling' but there is 'no way' ministers could be involved in getting examiners to doctor the results.

One benefit, says Lane, is that the furore could pave the way for a reform of the system. 'Some of us have been trying to reform A-levels for years – including Estelle – and normally when you try to change anything, people think it is the end of the world. This crisis could result in an intelligent debate on the subject.'

Morris needs to apply her solid, no-nonsense approach to clearing up the mess before it drags on too long. Dirt sticks, as any good politician knows, and she needs to move the process on if she is to continue her very promising career.


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