10th September 2004 at 01:00
the former schools minister and education secretary talks to Dorothy Walker

"You just have to go round a classroom to see what a good motivator ICT is," says Estelle Morris MP, veteran of countless classroom tours. In her career as schools minister and education secretary, she championed ICT as a powerful tool for raising standards. Today, as arts minister and chair of the e-Learning Foundation, she continues to work to ensure that every child can reap the educational benefits of technology.

Estelle admits that it was only after her resignation from the Cabinet in 2002 that she truly got to grips with using ICT, but the roots of her enthusiasm can be traced back 30 years, to the days when she was training to be a teacher.

In the late 1980s, computers made their debut at Sidney Stringer School in Coventry, where Estelle was teaching humanities. As a trainee more than a decade earlier, she had been impressed by team-teaching sessions which employed carousels of slides - then called "new media" - to introduce a topic.

"When computers came along, I could see the potential to do the things I had wished I could do with new media - use different kinds of messages, different images, new ways of communicating with the children," she says.

Elected to Parliament in 1992, Estelle left teaching before she had the opportunity to use ICT in her own classroom. Five years later, when she was appointed school standards minister, she began to realise just how much technology could contribute in the classroom.

"I spent my first 18 months with leading-edge teachers and ICT companies showing me what could be achieved," she says. "And I realised that we had arrived at a point where there was no option but to seize ICT. The gap between how we communicated with children inside school and how they communicated outside school was immense and growing.

"I also saw that some of the challenges that had faced me as a teacher could be answered through ICT. With the best will in the world, it is very difficult to tailor-make lessons for 30 different children - and the classes I taught were mixed ability, right up to Year 11. ICT enables you to teach at the level of the individual child, without having to institutionalise low expectations."

Her enthusiasm was tempered by concern that no child should miss out on the benefits. "One of the fears I had was that this must not be an initiative that widened the achievement gap between those from affluent and less affluent families. I believed that we could get this right, and I still believe it."

It is a goal she continues to pursue with passion, as chair of the e-Learning Foundation, which aims to ensure that all children have access to technology for learning, at school and at home. The foundation helps school communities raise sustainable funding (see page 37), and promotes research into the effects of ICT on learning. "The work complements what is going on with ICT in schools. One great advantage of ICT is that you can take learning home. Once you acknowledge that, you acknowledge that what happens to children outside school is powerfully determinant of their educational chances," says Estelle. "Our aim is to achieve one-to-one access to laptops at school, so a child can take a laptop home."

She now uses her own laptop, having finally found the time to take an ICT course after her resignation as education secretary. "In the 1980s I had bought an Amstrad and taught myself word processing, but after that I fell into the trap of having other people doing the computing for me," she says.

"I signed up for a course at the House of Commons, and I think I caused some surprise - most of the learners were young secretaries and researchers."

Estelle is now relishing her role as arts minister. "When I was in education I always believed in creativity in schools. I now understand that if we are to get to where we want to be with creativity in schools, we need to make a lot more links with the world of arts. Maybe the next decade is about ensuring that the arts, culture and creativity are just as embedded in education as ICT now is."

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