Estelle wins last chance to make it happen

15th June 2001 at 01:00
alling an election at the peak of the exam season meant that lots of teachers probably didn't have the time or energy to vote, let alone stay up until 4am. But I did - and while it may have been a boring campaign, it was a wonderful election.

Lab hold, Lab hold, Lab hold, streamed like tickertape for hours across the bottom of the TV screen. Has everyone really forgotten those blighted wastelands of the Thatcher years so fast that they don't feel elated at the first-ever Labour Government to be elected for a second term?

But there were a couple of nasty moments. One was David Dimbleby's smooth tones announcing that Estelle Morris seemed be "in trouble" at Birmingham Yardley. The last time I'd heard that phrase was four years ago, when Michael Portillo was "in trouble" at Enfield Southgate. Then it was a cause for rejoicing. Roll on big trouble for Mr Glossy Quiff. But what if Estelle lost her seat and couldn't be education secretary after all?

This shows just how many hopes are hanging on the slight but square shoulders of Estelle Morris. As of last Friday, she is Secretary of State for Education, joining a select band of women education secretaries which include "Red" Ellen Wilkinson in the post-war Labour Government, Shirley Williams, and of course Margaret Thatcher.

She's also one of a new group of female Cabinet ministers who have at last been given real policy-making and spending power. They have, apparently, spent most of the weekend on the phone to each other - forming political alliances and support systems like men always have.

These bonds will be important for Estelle Morris. She is probably the last throw in the Labour Government's efforts to raise the game of the British education system without losing half the teachers in the process. David Blunkett and Tony Blair are (at last) seriously unnerved by the haemorrhge of experienced teachers from the profession, and the unwillingness of young graduates to join it.

Mr Blunkett has now admitted that he underestimated the scale of the crisis - in the face of massive evidence from The TES and other sources. As recently as last autumn, Blunkett was complaining bitterly to me that The TES was exaggerating the scale of the crisis - and that the much more comforting figures collected by his department were more reliable.

Blair has avoided overt contrition, but I don't imagine we're going to hear any more overheated speeches describing teachers as powerful Old Labour vested interests which need to be confronted and defeated. There has to be a new start.

Already, there are some helpful straws in the wind - such as this week's mea culpa from Nick Tate, formerly head of the Qualifications and Assessment Authority. Now that he's a headteacher, he feels that British schoolchildren are over-examined. "It looks different when you are on this side of the fence," he says. Well, fancy that. But at least he's had the guts to say it.

Now that Blair and Blunkett realise they blew it with the teachers, Estelle Morris will have a lot of freedom of action. Since she has actually been a teacher, her colleagues will assume she understands what makes them tick. She must exploit this autonomy as early as possible by insisting that Government, employers and parents understand that Britain's teachers are the solution, not the problem, and deserve appropriate respect and remuneration.

This is the only way she can win back the trust of the profession and make teaching an attractive proposition for the young. If she fails, all those fine plans for the future will be derailed faster than you can say "Railtrack".

Our new columnist, Caroline St John-Brooks, will appear in this slot once a fortnight

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