100 years of women in FE and skills. The teacher who became education secretary: Estelle Morris
In the latest FETL blog on the women who shaped further education in the UK, we consider the career of Baroness Estelle Morris, a fondly remembered education secretary who has continued to contribute beyond frontline politics
Politics is in Estelle Morris’s blood. She was born in Manchester in 1952 into a staunchly Labour family. Her father, Charles, and her uncle, Alf Morris, were both long-serving Labour MPs for Manchester constituencies. Her own route into politics, however, was unconventional. She went to Rack House primary school in Wythenshawe and Whalley Range High School, where she failed her English and French A-levels. This meant that she could not go to university but, at the time, this was no obstacle to becoming a teacher. She attended Coventry College of Education, gaining a BEd in 1974 and encountering its inspirational founding principal, the progressive educationalist Joan Browne, whom she described as ‘a pioneer in showing what women could achieve, long before it became fashionable to do so’. Morris became a social studies and humanities teacher at the inner-city Sidney Stringer School in Coventry in 1974, working at the school until 1992, when she was elected to Parliament.
Morris was appointed head of sixth-form studies at the school and became increasingly active in local politics. She was a member of Warwick District Council from 1979 to 1991 and in 1992 stood as Labour candidate for the marginal Birmingham Yardley constituency. She succeeded in capturing the seat from the Conservatives, with a majority of only 162. She used her maiden speech in the Commons to denounce policy turbulence in the education sector and to argue against the return of selection in UK education policy:
When I met people during the election, the one thing that they wanted for education was stability. They are fed up with ministerial changes of mind. As soon as one ministerial directive has been answered, it is countered with another and they start again. They also want stability of funding so that head teachers do not have to spend their time applying to this or that government department for funding for this or that project in order to educate the children whom they seek to serve. Those who want stability in education will be deeply disturbed by the recent talk of the possible reintroduction of selection in secondary schools. If we were to reintroduce selection, it would be the biggest upheaval that schools have had to face in recent decades, and the biggest danger to children’s education that they have had to face in their lifetime.
Morris became Labour’s opposition spokeswoman on education and employment, holding the position until 1997 when Labour won the election and Morris became a junior minister, for school standards. Her teaching background and her willingness to champion comprehensive education made Morris a popular choice with teachers. Politically, she had a reputation as a pragmatist rather than an ideologue, keen to listen and to find ways in which to make things work. She was highly esteemed by teaching unions despite pushing through performance-related pay in the face of their fierce opposition. Her straightforward, softly spoken approach and her evident sincerity also made her popular with education department officials, who credited her with improving standards in primary schools.
In 2001, Morris was promoted to education secretary, succeeding David Blunkett in the newly created Department for Education and Skills (previously the Department for Education and Employment). She was the first former comprehensive school teacher to hold the position. It was unusual for an MP with less than 10 years’ experience of frontline politics to be appointed to a key Cabinet post, but it reflected her growing influence and reputation as a minister in the department. Her appointment was widely welcomed, particularly among teachers and teachers’ unions, though her relative inexperience also made it a risk. She quickly found herself dealing with crisis after crisis, as evidence of overspending and fraudulent misuse of the Individual Learning Account (ILA) scheme – one of Labour’s flagship education initiatives when it was elected in 1997 – emerged, and news broke of the upgrading of 1,000 students’ A-level results. Although Morris was not directly responsible for these problems, she was obliged to deal with them, and, for some critics, she did not do so effectively. Faced with so much fire-fighting, she struggled to be effective in her new role. She resigned from her post suddenly in October 2002, explaining that she did not feel up to the job. In her resignation letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair, she said that she felt she had been able to achieve more as a junior minister. ‘I’ve learned what I’m good at and also what I’m less good at,’ she wrote. ‘I’m good at dealing with the issues and in communicating to the teaching profession. I am less good at strategic management of a huge department and I am not good at dealing with the modern media.’
David Hart, General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, described Morris’s resignation as both ‘a tragedy for her and a tragedy for the education service.’ Doug McAvoy, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said she was ‘a minister who cared about education and understood the problems teachers faced … It’s a great pity that she has decided to go. On too many occasions, the Education Department’s position has been too highly influenced by the wishes of Downing Street rather than the needs of the service. Estelle fought hard to prevent that.’ These sentiments were widely shared within the teaching profession, as well as among civil servants in the department who warmly applauded Morris as she left the department for the last time as education secretary.
Morris returned to government in 2003 as Minister for the Arts in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport but stepped down, both as a minister and as a Member of Parliament, at the 2005 general election. Her constituency was gained by the Liberal Democrats. Later that year, she became Baroness Morris of Yardley and was appointed Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sunderland, a post she held until 2009. In September 2005, she succeeded Baroness Helena Kennedy as President of the National Children’s Bureau. Also in 2005, she helped to set up the Children’s Workforce Development Council and, in 2008, became Chair of the Institute of Effective Education. Morris has also continued to contribute thoughtfully and critically to debate about education as a journalist. In a 2016 Guardian article, she urged Labour to do more to offer a clear ‘credible alternative’ to Conservative policies on education and to set out to the electorate what its education reforms were intended to achieve, writing:
There is a growing chasm between politicians and the public, in education as elsewhere. What should be a shared national agenda of higher standards for more children has turned into mistrust and friction, no more so than in the relationship between government and teachers. Any sense of shared purpose and joint endeavour has given way to weary suspicion.
Few education ministers or secretaries of state, before or since, have understood the sector as well as Estelle Morris, and perhaps none has been as willing to listen and work closely with the teaching profession, at every level of education. Although her time as secretary of state was beset with crises, she continues to be remembered warmly and respectfully as an intelligent, committed politician who understood education and worked hard to improve it.