How Saint Estelle fell from grace

29th April 2005 at 01:00
Michael Shaw on Blair's efforts to highlight Labour's schools achievements and, below, Jon Slater looks back on the careers of the party's recent education secretaries

Civil servants broke with protocol to applaud Estelle Morris when she returned to the Department for Education and Skills in the top job, after Labour's 2001 election victory.

Before the well-liked, former teacher lay the task of spreading Labour's early primary successes through secondary schools. Four years and billions of pounds later, it is clear that, despite some successes, events made Labour's second term a rough ride for Ms Morris and her ministers The summer of 2002 proved to be Ms Morris' nemesis. The murder of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman by Ian Huntley, caretaker at Soham village college, led to a panic over criminal checks and the Criminal Records Bureau became overwhelmed.

Then public confidence in exams was rocked by the A-level fiasco when it was revealed that an unprecedented number of papers had been marked down.

The final straw for Ms Morris was the failure of schools to meet the national key stage 2 test targets. "I have not felt I have been as effective as I should be or as effective as you need me to be," she said as she resigned. Ms Morris is standing down as an MP and was this week made pro-vice chancellor of Sunderland Unoversity.

After the saint, came the rhino: Charles Clarke was charged with persuading MPs to embrace university top-up fees and unions to agree to teaching assistants taking classes. He won both battles and also succeeded in defusing the argument about whether specialist schools create a two-tier system by announcing all schools could be specialist.

With schools getting billions extra for books and buildings, even Mr Clarke appeared unprepared for the tongue-lashing he received from heads in Easter 2003 during the funding "crisis".

He eventually responded by guaranteeing schools a minimim funding increase per pupil.

Meanwhile, Tony Blair's attempts to raise secondary standards by building new independent academies faced complaints over the influence of evangelical sponsors and scepticism about their performance.

Despite being quick to paint these critics as forces of conservatism, Downing Street was not always on the side of the radicals.

Faced with a tough decision on 14-19 education, Mr Blair took the conservative option and outraged the education world by watering down proposals to replace A-levels with a new diploma.

Who knows whether this would have happened had Charles Clarke remained in post?

But David Blunkett's resignation following allegations over his lover's nanny's visa had prompted a move to the Home Office for Mr Clarke and 36-year-old Ruth Kelly was left to respond to Mike Tomlinson's 14-19 proposals, which called for an overarching diploma within 10 years.

Putting the kybosh on Tomlinson was one of Ms Kelly's first acts as Education Secretary. Many felt that, having started the term with a teachers' friend at the helm, the Department for Education and Skills had completed it led by a Number 10 stooge.

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