Tough Estelle who wins without a fight

29th June 2001 at 01:00
he pundits have spoken: our new Education and Skills Secretary, Estelle Morris, will be a"soft touch". She won't be as tough as Stephen Byers. She's a Downing Street stooge, who will do all No 10 commands. Oh, and she's a woman, so what do you expect? The pundits couldn't be more wrong.

First, she's "a soft touch" with teachers. I worked with Estelle over the past four years. She decided that performance-related pay was needed, so it was introduced. She worked on the teachers' Green Paper, which led to major reforms alongside merit pay. She cajoled the unions until her plans were introduced. She disappointed some critics because she won without a strike.

Therefore she wasn't tough enough and PRP isn't really performance-related. This assumes the "threshold" is all that matters.

If 70 or 80 per cent of those eligible to apply for the threshold hadn't passed in year one, there would be a lot of senior teachers whom heads might have had to demote. The real test will be with post-threshold payments. Even so, with the School Achievement Awards, the biggest public-sector PRP scheme in Europe is already in place.

It was also Estelle Morris who developed the Graduate Teacher Programme for school-based training and the controversial teacher tests. She initiated training salaries which boosted recruitment and has no ideological hang-ups about allowing individual headteachers to determine their own pay scales: this year's pay settlement offered a considerable move in that direction. Expect more.

Then, they say, there's local education authority privatisation. Estelle has had to deal with the nitty-gritty of implementing the most radical change in years to LEAs. She supervised 18 different interventions in LEAs. Some were wholescale, like Islington, which the Office for Standards in Education says has improved significantly. In others, like Liverpool, when local heads said the inspection and consultants had led to huge reform, she allowed the LEA to keep going on probation. Others had part-privatisations. She rejected those who wanted privatisation to be automatic, with no consideration of local circumstances. Ofsted reported as great an improvement in Liverpool as in Islington. It was no coincidence that the report was published a few days after Chris Woodhead left.

Estelle believes in what works, in getting the detail right. She is a pragmatist, not an ideologue. In an under-reported speech to LEA officers last year, she said she wanted to make it easier for private-sector companies to get involved in successful schools and LEAs on a voluntary basis.

She led the Standards and Effectiveness Unit's development of the popular inner-city reform programme, Excellence in Cities. She oversaw the new city academies and is an enthusiast for specialist schools. Her enthusiasm predated that of Downing Street. Estelle presided over the successful turnaround of more than 700 failing schools.

She also had day-to-day responsibility for the literacy and numeracy hours. There were few harder-working ministers. She didn't spend a lot of time in the Press Gallery, or lunching lobby correspondents, which meant that too few journalists got the measure of the teacher-turned-minister. It took some time for Tony Blair to notice her talent, because she doesn't promote herself. When he did notice, he became a fan. So, ignore the nonsense that she was appointed because Blair wants her to be soft on reform.

This raises the second question: will she be a "Downing Street stooge", whatever that may represent? Estelle is a Blairite, but if she feels strongly she will argue her case strongly, whether her opponent be a teachers' leader, an LEA, the Prime Minister or his advisers.

The public may not know as much about her, in part because she made no serious gaffes as a minister. She steered LEA privatisation without ending up in court and succeeded in putting PRP in place, despite the NUT's pyrrhic victory in the courts. Inner-city school reform, specialist schools and literacy and numeracy have all been introduced successfully and with minimum fuss.

Estelle Morris and Stephen Byers were both highly-competent ministers for school standards. Because of timing, Estelle had to deliver more, achieve more and avoid more pitfalls. She was conciliatory where it helped, but never went back on the principles. Could there be the tiniest streak of misogyny behind some of her earlier notices? If so, some commentators are in for a big surprise.

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

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