Tearful teachers queue up to give Estelle a hug

1st November 2002 at 00:00
"You know this as teachers, that when somebody's confidence is undermined it is a bit of a long haul back. And I couldn't leave you, and the rest of the education world, to wait and manage while I had the long haul back."

These were the words of Estelle Morris, four days after quitting as Education Secretary, to a gala dinner to mark the national teaching awards in London last Saturday.

It was a long-standing engagement, but her appearance stunned many who believed she had left the capital to escape the spotlight. A queue formed at her table of teachers who wanted to hug, kiss and be photographed with her. She won two standing ovations.

In an impromptu 10-minute speech, which moved many to tears, she said: "You only need to know one thing, that it wasn't because of you. I haven't deserted you, I still love you and believe in what you do."

Seeming relaxed and happy, she also made the 300-strong audience laugh. On hundreds of school visits she had seen teachers "working miracles every day" but never, inexplicably, an untidy staffroom.

At a Stoke on Trent school the head asked children if they could remember what Ms Morris did. One seven-year-old piped up: "She's Mr Blair's little helper".

But reports suggest that it was during a phone call from the Prime Minister, taken in the back of her ministerial Rover, that she realised her little helper days were numbered, writes Cherry Canovan. The lengthy silence that followed her admission that the Government was in trouble over A-levels told her all.

It had been a hellish time. In the middle of the A-level furore she was even prevented from nipping out for a sandwich in case she met hostility in the shop.

In her letter of resignation she admitted that she was not good at dealing with the modern media. She found herself in the spotlight not only over A-levels, but delayed criminal checks for teachers and her intervention in the decision of an appeals panel to reinstate two excluded boys. Then she discovered reporters had contacted her family asking whether they sent their children to private schools, and why she had never married.

But there were other pressures.

Although Tony Blair apparently urged her to reconsider resigning, pressure from Number 10 may have influenced her decision to go.

She is also said to have been at loggerheads with Andrew Adonis, Mr Blair's head of policy, who has the PM's ear on education. He apparently annoyed Ms Morris by talking directly to her civil servants. Before Sir William Stubbs was sacked as chairman of the QCA, he rang Mr Adonis over Ms Morris's plans for an independent inquiry into A-levels but Adonis declined to intervene.

Ms Morris had initiated meetings with Mr Adonis to ensure she was kept informed. But, they clashed over whether top universities should charge higher fees (see box, top right). Mr Adonis backs the idea, while Ms Morris is strongly opposed. This is the next nightmare. How will ministers afford to send half of all school-leavers to higher education? Of course, it is no longer her problem.

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