Guileless mistakes of a frank minister

October 24, 2002

Estelle Morris was never as comfortable in universities as on her natural ground in schools, but it was a series of mistakes in primary and secondary education that caused her downfall.

Although Mike Tomlinson's report exonerated her, this summer's A-level debacle, coming immediately after the start-of-term chaos of unfinished vetting of school staff by the Criminal Records Bureau, left her reputation in tatters.

Ms Morris became a target for Opposition politicians and media critics in the manner of Stephen Byers in his last days as transport secretary. Every mistake was certain to be followed by calls for her resignation.

An ill-advised intervention over the expulsion of two boys who made death threats to a teacher confirmed the impression of a tendency to act first and think later. A damning report on her department's handling of individual learning accounts would have caused further trouble today.

Damian Green, her Conservative shadow, might have delivered the coup de grâce with his discovery of a promise made in 1999 to resign if primary school targets were not met. But, although it was confirmed last month that they had been missed, she had already made clear that she would not be bound by this commitment.

Instead, she attributed her departure to difficulties in mastering a wider brief and handling critical media attention. In a typically frank letter to the prime minister, she said: "I have learned what I am good at and also what I am less good at."

Ms Morris's openness had won over many sceptics, from independent school head teachers to university vice-chancellors. But it also made her unwilling to use Tony Blair's support to ride out the current storm of criticism. Downing Street's patience may have been wearing thin, but she was a cabinet favourite and in no immediate danger of the sack.

The resignation has prevented Ms Morris making her mark on higher education. After a long hiatus over student support and the prospect of top-up fees, next month's strategy document was to contain her vision for the next decade. She was passionately committed to widening participation and more concerned than her critics recognised to preserve the excellence of leading universities.

Having failed her A levels and lost the opportunity to attend university, Ms Morris was acutely aware of the advantages that were being denied to millions of working-class teenagers. In an interview with The THES this summer, she said: "As a nation, we have to ask ourselves whether we believe in our kids... I do."

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