She scraped four 0-levels first time around and failed three As, but a mixture of determination and political nous has given former PE teacher Estelle Morris the chance to fly Tony Blair's flag for quality in education. Wendy Wallace joins her on a schools tour.
They're all lined up in the hall at Longtown primary school - the headteacher, the director of the Herefordshire education action zone, the county council's director of education and a team of student reporters from the local high school, standing in front of the wallbars and the displays of work on Roman soldiers. "We haven't gone to any great lengths, to be honest," says David Price, head of this 41-pupil school standing in the shadow of the Black Mountain, whose snow-capped grandeur can be seen from the playground. Nevertheless, faces collectively hit the floor when news comes moments later that the minister of state for school standards, Estelle Morris, has been delayed in coming round the mountain.
As the atmosphere deflates like a punctured balloon, Klaus Wedell, emeritus professor at London university's Institute of Education, chair of governors at Longtown and of the Herefordshire EAZ, serves up coffee in suspiciously new-looking blue and gold mugs. Caroline Gwillim, mother of two Longtown pupils and treasurer of the PTA, dashes in late, smelling of talc. She and her husband have a sheep farm and she was pulling a lamb at 5.30 this morning. Is she looking forward to the minister's visit? "Politics round here is not a great issue," she says. It turns out that what she means is that politics round here is a great issue. "Being a farming community, the Government is doing us no favours. There have been a lot of broken promises. My children's education is important to me because I don't want them to have the life I've got."
When the minister does arrive, hurrying in, dressed in a navy suit and angora jumper, pager at her hip, the welcoming committee perks up. She's straight into action, greeting the dignitaries, shaking hands twice with the school press gang because their photographer missed it the first time, apologising for her late arrival in her curiously hybrid accent, with Birmingham in the ascendant one minute, Manchester the next. (Estelle Morris was born and bred in Manchester, but represents Birmingham Yardley, where she spends half her time.) She's remembered where she is - listening to Caroline Gwillim's account of her ITevening class at the school. "Presumably Hereford would have been too difficult for you to get to," she says. Mrs Gwillim says yes, it would, adding brightly that six months ago she "didn't know what a keyboard was". She doesn't mention that, to put food on the table, she has three part-time jobs, on top of farming (book-keeping, waitressing and working as a domestic assistant). Similarly, headteacher David Price will not be bringing up performance-related pay and small-school funding. "I wouldn't want to bore her with that because it's flag-waving day for the EAZ," he says.
This Alice in Wonderland atmosphere permeates Estelle Morris's three-hour visit to the rural county, nudged up against Wales. She moves into the infant class at Longtown, smiling her toothy smile, and squats down by a table of four children who look as if they may be having fun cutting out pictures. She picks up a piece of paper. "I've got him upside down, that's why I couldn't see he was a chipmunk," she tells the nearest child, stroking his head with her unmanicured hand. She's more attractive - glamorous even than her press photographs suggest. "Golly! What must it be like for royalty," says key stage 1 teacher Polly Pascoe as the entourage moves on.
Union conferences apart - "I don't think you go to union conferences and change minds" - Estelle Morris is the acceptable face of education policy. Pupils may prefer David Blunkett (he's got a dog), but staff warm to Ms Morris.
The 47-year-old former teacher arrived at the DfEE three years ago with considerable political experience - she had been a whip in opposition and a member of Blunkett's shadow team from 1995 to 1997 - and kudos with teachers after her 18 years of teaching at Sidney Stringer community school in Coventry. Just how much of that has been eroded was made clear by the mass walk-out of delegates at the NUT's Easter gathering in Harrogate and by one hand-made placard reading "Remember Coventry". Those who remained to hear her speak registered a noisy protest against performance-related pay.
But Estelle Morris gets a good response at the hundreds of schools she visits. "Some teachers take you on," she says in the car, after leaving Longtown. "And I'm quite happy to have a robust conversation. But most don't do that. They don't row with you, because they want to be seen in a good light. I realised recently I haven't seen an untidy staffroom since I left school."
The nature of the interactions on the Herefordshire visit suggests the minister might be unaware of teachers' growing dissatisfaction with the Government. But a red-alert defensiveness on the subject indicates otherwise. Is she concerned about the apparent breakdown of trust between teachers and the education department? "We have failed to give them the route map," she admits. "They want to see that it is an education policy not a political policy." How does the Government plan to respond to the initiative-fatigue pervading the profession? "Teachers have an immediate reaction, so that any announcement looks like another demand," she says. "The nature of that communication is difficult. We need to build in more reflection time, because we need measured thoughts."
On workload, she is hawkish. "Many professions work after 6pm," she says briskly. "I don't think teachers expect short hours." Information technology is part of the solution. "I remember working evenings, and that's got worse. But nobody now should be providing information twice, or collecting it other than by ICT. The whole of education supports using ICT as an administrative tool."
At the next stop, Hereford's 628-pupil Haywood high school, in special measures, pupils are lined up in black blazers. The posse following the minister has grown considerably with the arrival of Central Television and others. Ms Morris moves inside to a new ICT suite, converted from a lavatory with EAZ money. Here, pupil Julian Flake, armed only with hair gel, is magnificently articulate in explaining the intricacies of the Successmaker software program. "I have trouble with writing," he says at one point. She makes blue-eye contact. "I do too." Three other Year 11 pupils work on at the table, apparently unaware of the 20-odd extra people in their classroom. They have prefect badges on their lapels.
But to headteacher Wiktor Daron's credit, he has a non-prefect material group of Year 10s and Year 11s waiting in the library to talk to the minister. She sits down with them and makes conversation about work experience. "Which did you like best? And why was that?" BT was the best placement, they tell her. "Will you get a chance to go back?" "Probably not," says the class realist. The girls don't speak until she draws them out.
Despite her high office, Estelle Morris seems to empathise with the disenfranchised, perhaps because of her own experience of school failure. She got into Whalley Range high school in Manchester (now a comprehensive, then a girls' grammar), but did not thrive there. She scraped four O-levels, getting three more as retakes, then failed three As (in English, French and general studies).
One reason for her failure, she says, was the low expectations of her teachers. "I've always felt that I was a failure at secondary school. Tracing it back, I think it was to do with aspirations. And I didn't study hard enough. I didn't know how to study. I've at last persuaded myself - at 47 - that I was probably able enough to have passed my A-levels, but it stays with you. I hate to criticise the school because I was happy there in a strange way, but their expectations were not as high as they should have been. I think I then got into the rut of what I complain about now, which is low expectations."
Estelle Morris's own experience perhaps explains her unflinching support for government initiatives such as the literacy and numeracy hours. "I went to a council estate junior school - I've thought about this a lot in terms of the key stage work we're doing - where I'd done no French, no algebra, no grammar, because none of it was needed for your 11-plus. But it's needed in your first year in grammar school. I went within one term from being the top of a primary school class to being near the bottom of my form in grammar school, and I never recovered from it."
Her family background - her father, Charles Morris, and uncle Lord Morris of Manchester were both Labour MPs and ministers - taught her that she could aspire to politics, she says, even though her parents both left school at 14. "It gave me the feeling that politics was a choice I could make. It was something that was okay for people like us to do. All my extended family - we're all inner-city working class Mancunians - saw politics as a vehicle for social change."
Whalley Range though, shepherded her into teaching. "If you were clever you went to university, and if you weren't you were a teacher or a nurse. I wasn't considered university material. I didn't even fill out an application form."
She went from school to Coventry college of education, where staff supported her in transferring to the BEd course after the first year. Although she says she went into teaching for the wrong reasons - "I got my self-esteem through being good at sports rather than academically, so I thought I may as well teach sports" - she is enthusiastic about her Sidney Stringer days. "I love that developmental stage, Years 9, 10 and 11. It's a very magic time; the children are full of optimism and enthusiasm yet they're dealing with the pressures adolescence brings." She adds rather belatedly that she also "liked working with colleagues" - and by the time she left was head of the school's 16-plus centre.
Her political activity developed in tandem with her teaching career. She was elected to Warwickshire district council aged 27, became Labour group leader at the beginning of the Eighties, and only then, she says, "admitted to myself that I wanted to become an MP". She tried for seats before the 1983 and the 1987 general elections, but was not selected as a Labour party candidate until 1992, when she was elected with a majority of only 162 - increased in 1997 to 5,315.
Constituency work is important to her. "Even when you're a government minister, the joy you get when you've got someone rehoused, or represented them with the benefits agency - that still motivates me tremendously," she says. While she helps constituents with casework, they provide her with a reality check. "I do actually like going to Sainsburys. If I have a very busy weekend - and they are incredibly busy - I'll still slot in 45 minutes to go to the shops. It gives a sense of ordinariness in an otherwise hectic life. And you always have to remember that you're not important; the job is important. Going to the post office and joining the queue, or doing the shopping, gives me that sense of being back with reality."
Without children of her own or a partner, she relies on old friends - "from teaching, on the whole" - for relaxation and shared holidays. "Otherwise I'm in danger of working all day every day; friends are incredibly important." She is also close to her younger sister's children; after her mauling at Easter she took her two nieces for a trip on the London Eye.
Estelle Morris still has something of the look of the sports teacher about her. She is lithe - "She never eats," murmurs one of her entourage - doesn't seem to wear make-up, and says she swims "before work" when she is in London. Something about the way she wears her suit reminds me of my own gym teacher on founder's day, the only time we ever saw her out of her divided skirt.
She sits down with another group of Haywood pupils who have been taking part in half-term and after-school catch-up classes. She's hunched forward over the table, asking them how many pupils joined in. Were there as many boys as girls? What difference do they think taking part may make to their grades? She's not making conversation, she's doing research. One girl tells her she expects a D in English now, instead of an F. Ms Morris doesn't point out that that won't count for much. "Appreciate the extra effort your teachers put in," she says, "because they could be doing other things."
At the next school, St Martin's primary in Hereford, she stands in the hall with a glass of untouched orange juice in her hand talking to parent helpers, before being invited by the head to take part in a musical interlude. She puts her cardboard plate of sandwiches under her chair to listen to the children sing hymns. It's a peculiarly kitsch English moment as she sits next to the head and staff, the food on the parquet floor underneath her, Shine Jesus Shine ringing in the air, the teacher conducting from behind for all she's worth, rocking on her heels. It's hard to tell if the minister's smile denotes real enjoyment, but it probably does. "It's one of the things I like most about going to schools, listening to choirs," she tells them.
Speaking to the head in the school's nursery, the Alice in Wonderland effect comes into play again. "Is it a nuisance that you've got the different strands of funding?" she asks.
"It's not, in a sense," the head capitulates immediately, disarmed by her earnest friendliness. In the background, their teacher is putting the tinies through an alphabet song, closely followed by counting to 10. Even the minister seems discomfited by the parade of early learning competency.
The hostile reception at the NUT conference stirred Estelle Morris - "If there was a touch of anger," she says, "it was over the assumption that we hadn't listened" - but it has not shaken her. She is passionate about universal literacy, and the Government has made clear that it will take no prisoners in the standards drive. Tony Blair is said to take a closer day-to-day interest in education than in any other government department, and in Estelle Morris he has not just a foot soldier but a warrior. "As a party member, I talk about the 1945 Labour government and their achievements in the health service and better housing," she says. "I want future generations of Labour Party members to talk about the 1997 government in terms of education. If we get people reading and writing, I genuinely think it will be an achievement in terms of life chances, which is what motivates people in the Labour Party, and will go down as one of the great feats of Labour government."
Estelle Morris calls teaching "the finest and most important profession in the world", but says she is no longer interested in philosophical debates about the purpose of education. "I've stopped arguing with myself and others about whether the main point is to free the individual spirit or train workers for the workforce," she says. "It's both, and it should be. When you start from the fact that too many children couldn't read or write, there is a consequence and I accept that. But I don't think it's squeezed out the rest of the curriculum. I'm as committed to a broad curriculum as anyone else."
How critical does she feel now of teachers? "I'm one of them," she says. "I say it accidentally in speeches. I say "us". It's the only profession I've got, and the only one I'm likely to have. It's desperately important to me that when they listen to me speak or when they meet me, I leave them with the impression that I know what teaching is about."
The last stop of the day in Herefordshire is the conference suite of a local hotel for an EAZ meeting which she is to address. The hall has been heavily sloganised. "Working together to achieve more" proclaim the plastic banners around the walls. The audience of around 100 is waiting. "You'll know when she comes in - there'll be a great fuss made," one teacher is telling his group of children at the back of the hall. But Alice has slipped in already and is standing by the platform glad-handing more local officials.
Klaus Wedell introduces her. "You are the first senior member of central government to visit Longtown since Henry III in 1233," he says. "It's a long journey," she quips back. She's unpretentious on the platform - "Can I just say what a smashing day I've had" - thanking teachers, schools and everyone else she's met in the course of the day. She starts talking more specifically, about can-do culture, the great sense of optimism she has encountered here, learning communities, learning cultures.
She is not a natural orator. Unhindered by full stops, the words begin to rush by like the landscape out of a train window. "Raising standards... every child... ideas grown by you... opportunity... challenge." It is classic New Labour-speak, but you get the impression that this minister really means it.