Estelle's hell of a week

27th September 2002 at 01:00
Ministers made mistakes in the exam-fixing row, but they hardly justified last week's lurid crisis coverage. Grade-fixing claims surfaced in The TES two weeks ago.

Many TES stories are followed up in Saturday's papers, but this one has run and run.

Ministers left Qualifications and Curriculum Authority chairman Sir William Stubbs and new chief executive Ken Boston to explain and investigate matters. But the QCA is too close to the exam boards, and the public expects ministers to be accountable when things go wrong. Had Ms Morris set up the independent Tomlinson inquiry on Monday rather than Thursday, she might have avoided last Friday's personal abuse.

Yet the story only became big news after later editions of Wednesday's London Evening Standard contradicted an earlier front page that Ms Morris planned an independent inquiry. With party conferences due, political correspondents sensed another ministerial scalp. The story suddenly became a crisis.

BBC political editor Andrew Marr compared it to foot and mouth. The Times declared it "Morris's biggest education test". When Ms Morris announced her inquiries at a Thursday press conference, it became ugly too. Unflattering pictures and accounts of her performance filled Friday's papers. The Sun, which was scathing in its August exam coverage, maintained: "Estelle's failed our kids", and sought her resignation. And The Times invited "an expert in non-verbal communication" to analyse her crossed legs: "classic signs of stress".

Perhaps Morris's real offence is her dislike of schmoozing lobby hacks, so most do not know her. Viewers of BBC News 24's live press conference coverage and her Newsnight and Channel Four News interviews saw the frank and honest Estelle absent from most newspaper accounts.

When the Sunday Telegraph reported that advisers favoured shifting to the baccalaureate, Ms Morris left the option open on Breakfast with Frost. This moved the story on. The BBC, ITN and the broadsheets debated the bac's merits, though the Sun called it: "An Estelle of a Mess".

Yet with no other serious revelations by midweek, the lobby had generally shifted its unforgiving gaze elsewhere. Tomlinson's report today may draw a line under the affair. But Ms Morris faces an even tougher time when the lobby next declares an education crisis.

Conor Ryan was special adviser to David Blunkett from 1997 to 2001

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