The teaching profession was shocked when Estelle Morris announced she was quitting as education secretary. Three months on, she tells Judith Judd why she believes she made the right decision, and explains the lessons she's learned
Last Friday, Estelle Morris, MP for Birmingham Yardley, stepped quietly back on to the educational stage when she addressed a group of Oxfordshire secondary heads. It was her first speaking engagement since last October, when she stunned colleagues by resigning as education secretary and telling the Prime Minister she was not up to the job. While some male MPs agreed, many teachers and members of the public admired the frank admission, which brought instant celebrity to an unassuming woman who had previously been overshadowed by Cabinet heavyweights.
Since then she has received more than 2,000 letters. There were cards at Christmas and the letters are still arriving from teachers who decided to wait "because I expect you had a lot of letters at first". Invitations to visit schools and speak at conferences are also part of the postbag to her tiny office at Westminster. Last month she went to three schools in Liverpool. This month it is Berkshire and Leicester. London schools are in her diary.
"I love education," she says. "I can't imagine not making a contribution to it." Equally, three months on, she has no doubt that her decision was right. As the crisis over A-level marking developed last autumn and some schools delayed opening because the Criminal Records Bureau had failed to complete its checks on teachers, she believed events were spiralling out of control.
For the first time, she found journalists were delving into her private life. They were asking why her sister's children went to private schools and why she had never married. When she was accused of interfering in a dispute over an expulsion appeals panel ruling, and the Conservatives dug out a 1999 pledge that she would resign if the Government failed to hit its test targets for 11-year-olds (it did), she decided to go.
She is still convinced she was not up to the job of managing a big department and dealing with the media. Although one senior civil servant has said: "I thought she did the strategic management very well," she argues: "The test of whether you should stay is not how well you do when things are going fine but how well you do when there is a crisis. I was leading the department and I couldn't see a way out."
She had been promoted after the 2001 election because of her success as deputy to David Blunkett. "There is a difference between being secretary of state and minister of state. When I was dealing with threshold assessments for teachers and intervention in local education authorities, I was in the front line with the education service. I never lost my confidence.
"With A-level it was about more than education; it was about wider politics and it became a huge political issue. I wasn't skilful enough to manage it.
I wasn't skilful enough to see the department through."
Part of the trouble, she says, was her sex. "I tried to do my politics in a style that was there because I was a woman and it didn't equip me well to withstand the torrent of what was happening." She uses the word naive - several times - to describe her behaviour during the A-level crisis, when the media, egged on by angry headteachers, were in full cry. "During that time I naively felt - and I'm not making excuses - that what I needed to do was solve it. I just got my head down and set about solving it. Someone said to me, 'That is a typical woman's way of doing it'. At that level, while you are solving the crisis, a turmoil is building up about it. I thought I could ignore the turmoil."
As for the media, she has no complaints, despite the investigations by two newspapers into her private affairs. "That is how things are. I just found that my tolerance of it was very low. I needed a bit of me I felt was mine."
Her resignation, she insists, was not a sign of weakness. After she went, she was annoyed by the debate among her colleagues about whether she was weak or strong. Gerald Kaufman, one of her fellow MPs, brutally quoted Harry Truman: "If you don't like the heat, stay out of the kitchen." She says: "I'm not an opter-out. I didn't have to go. I felt I took control. It was my decision and in that sense I felt very strong taking it."
So she is content that her judgment was right. She is equally clear that she misses enormously what she calls "the best job in government". She misses the civil servants in the department who used to complain that they saw more of her than they did of their families. She misses being able to make things happen. She misses her relationship with the teaching profession. She even misses the union leaders who were part of her life for the five-and-a-half years she spent at the education department. (She was appointed schools standards minister after Labour's 1997 victory and promoted to minister of state a year later. She spent three years as David Blunkett's deputy before being appointed to the top post.) Returning to the backbenches from the Cabinet is rather like her previous transition from comprehensive school teacher (at Sidney Stringer in Coventry for 18 years) to MP, she says: structured days disappear and the diary is suddenly empty. She wants to continue to comment on education but has to be careful not to trespass on territory that now belongs to Charles Clarke, her successor, and David Miliband, his minister of state. "I am good friends with them - I am having dinner with David soon - but they must be left alone to do the job. I hope I can still comment without them feeling I'm getting in the way."
Her loyalty to the Prime Minister and the Government is such that she is unlikely to rock the boat. Though her opposition to top-up fees for university students is well known, she refuses to comment on last month's higher education strategy paper. "The day the higher education paper came out I could have been on the media all day, from Today in the morning to Newsnight in the evening. As it was, I was at Warwick University (where she had been a BEd student) getting an honorary degree. I had a lovely day."
Her new life has advantages: her two nieces, aged 11 and 13, see more of their "doting aunt"; she is back in the swimming pool every day after a gap during her last three months in office; and she has put on 3lb because so many people have taken her out to dinner. She is reading whole newspapers instead of education cuttings, and talking a great deal. "I learn through talking. Perhaps that's why I was so bad at exams." She is thinking about public service reform and, particularly, the parallels between education and health, specialist schools and foundation hospitals.
Is a return to ministerial office, even the Cabinet, a possibility as some newspapers have suggested, perhaps as a culture or health minister? While she doesn't sit around thinking about it and insists it is not on the agenda, she doesn't rule it out. Is that because she has learned lessons and could do it better next time? She laughs. "Politics is littered with people who have lost jobs and who think they have learned things. It's nice that some people think I still have something to contribute."
Whatever she has learned about politics, she is certain she has learned more about herself. She says she is more of a feminist than she was and has a stronger sense of herself as a woman politician. Surprising, perhaps, that it has taken so long for a woman who has held office in a sphere still dominated by men. (During the 2001 campaign, she was asked at a press conference about the role of women in politics; Gordon Brown, the chancellor, interrupted to answer the question.) "I've always seen the great divide as being between rich and poor rather than men and women," she says. "Now my views about women in politics have changed. It is no longer a case of increasing the number of women, rather of a change of style. Lots of women yearn for a style that is less defensive, more open, less cynical."
She looks cheerful and determined despite her fluctuating fortunes over the past six months. The A-level drama still haunts her, though less so as time goes on, but all those letters have helped her through. "It has been so heartening. I am deeply indebted to them for their affection and warm words, and to those who have invited me to their schools. They put into perspective an absolutely miserable three months. They stopped me thinking they were wasted years."
She is looking forward to a new relationship with teachers and still has messages for them. "The more I saw of teachers, the more I realised how they lacked confidence in their own ability. I think it's because 80 per cent of them are women. I could see from the data how much better they were getting, as well as from my visits to schools. Maybe they will believe me a bit more now I'm not a minister."