Exam crisis: Education chiefs who are facing a stern examination

Morris confronted by first serious challenge

The new school year started badly for Estelle Morris when the Secretary of State for Education was forced to apologise for the chaos caused by problems in vetting school staff.

That trouble and the furore over A-level marking represent the first serious threat to what until now has been an unstoppable political career.

Ms Morris, 50, comes from a strongly political Labour background. Both her father, Charles Morris, and her uncle, Alf, now Lord Morris of Manchester, were Labour MPs. Her father was an aide to Harold Wilson; her uncle was a Labour minister for the disabled.

Ms Morris is also probably one of the country's most high-profile A-level failures. At Whalley Range High School in Manchester in 1970 she flunked her English and French exams but fortunately had an unconditional offer of a place on a teacher training course.

The frustration of failing has remained etched on her memory and has been the driving force behind much of her ambition. "I'm sure I didn't work hard enough and that has driven me ever since," she has said.

She went on to teach at Sydney Stringer Community College, a comprehensive in Coventry, for 18 years before becoming an MP in 1992.

"She was a Blairite before Blair," Professor Jim Campbell, who taught Ms Morris when she was training to be a teacher 28 years ago, has said.

Ms Morris is said to have impressed the Prime Minister with her pragmatism, fresh ideas and her passion for education. Her unflinching focus has been to attempt to secure more private-sector involvement in the running of schools and to reform secondary education, aims that have angered the unions.

Ms Morris was Education minister from May 1997 to July 1998 and the minister for School Standards from July 1997 until June 2001, when she was appointed Secretary of State.

Although some questioned whether the quietly spoken minister would be able to secure the funding needed from the Treasury in the recent comprehensive spending review, Ms Morris has cleverly kept a foot in both the Blair and Brown camps.

Her agility paid off when she secured a 6 per cent real terms increase in education spending from Gordon Brown, which was regarded as something of a triumph.

She comes over as disarmingly sincere and is popular with teachers who appreciate her background in the profession. Her immediate predecessor, David Blunkett, cannot praise Ms Morris's abilities highly enough and has described her as one of Labour's rising stars. Others have said she has "an iron fist in a velvet glove". But despite her strengths Ms Morris now faces the biggest challenge of her political career. She must struggle not only to retain her own credibility but also to restore the public's faith in the whole exam system.

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