Tarnished star under pressure

After a year as Education Secretary, Estelle Morris's media honeymoon is over. Warwick Mansell and Jon Slater preview Labour's party conference

ESTELLE Morris will arrive in Blackpool for the Labour party conference next week facing more pressure than any Education Secretary for nearly a decade.

Not since the time of John Patten, the former Conservative education secretary has anyone responsible for schools received the battering Ms Morris has been through over the past 10 days.

Although unlikely to face too bumpy a ride from party delegates over the coming week, Ms Morris will be in the sights of elements of the media, who will prize her as a potential political scalp.

It is all a far cry from a year ago, when, newly-installed in the Cabinet, the Education Secretary arrived in wind-swept Brighton to be described, albeit by Peter Mandelson, as one of the Government's true stars.

Earlier this summer, she celebrated winning record increases in education funding in Chancellor Gordon Brown's Comprehensive Spending Review.

But recent weeks have been fraught with problems. First was the furore surrounding the decision - taken while she was out of the country and later rescinded - to tighten up Criminal Records Bureau checks on teachers, forcing some schools to delay opening for the new term.

Now, given the current uproar over A-levels, this week's national test results for 11-year-olds, revealing that the Government has failed to hit the targets on which Ms Morris's predecessor David Blunkett once staked his job, could hardly have been more badly timed.

All of which could make for a nervous debut by Ms Morris. This will be her first major speech to conference since entering the Cabinet: last year's event was truncated in the aftermath of September 11.

Much attention is likely to focus on the detail surrounding the A-level deb `cle, and how closely ministers were involved, though the National Association of Head Teachers this week said it believed Ms Morris herself was not directly to blame.

But almost as interesting for delegates and the watching millions could be the deeper question of the Government's centralising, target-setting agenda, which was attacked this week by the Liberal Democrats and will be a focus for next month's Tory conference.

Some will also question whether a pledge the Education Secretary made in Brighton last year to trust teachers more has in reality been fulfilled.

And two other issues threaten to provide yet more headaches for Ms Morris and her ministerial team. She and her deputy, David Miliband, are due to share fringe platforms with five union leaders to discuss the Government's strategy to reduce workloads for teachers.

Union leaders will also attempt to embarrass Labour over the controversial private finance initiative which education ministers have backed enthusiastically as a way of building and repairing schools.

They are demanding that companies are forced to sign a "fair wages clause" to protect the pay and conditions of staff in buildings which are managed by the private sector.

If the weather at last year's conference is anything to go by, Blackpool will be a stormy affair in more ways than one for Ms Morris.

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