Estelle Morris The head teacher

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The Independent Online

A week is a long time in politics. Two weeks is therefore an inordinately long time. A little over a fortnight ago Estelle Morris's main worry was whether she would be re-elected as an MP. There was a concerted Liberal Democrat challenge to her Birmingham Yardley seat – so concerted that BBC viewers were told on election night she was in danger of losing it.

Now she has been Secretary of State for Education and Skills for all of 15 days and is already being talked about as one of the "big hitters" of Tony Blair's second administration. She even fired the first shots in defence of the Government strategy for reforming public services in the debate on the Queen's Speech.

Not bad for a former schoolteacher (in fact the first comprehensive teacher ever to put in charge of the country's education service), who notoriously failed her A-levels while at school.

Estelle, who celebrated her 49th birthday 10 days after her appointment to the Cabinet, was born with politics in her blood. "I can't remember a time when I wasn't involved in the Labour Party and electioneering," she says. Her father, Charles, was a former MP and an aide to Harold Wilson. Her uncle, Lord (Alf) Morris of Manchester, was a Labour minister, for the disabled.

She grew up on a council estate in Manchester, was seen as a very "bright" pupil at her primary school, Rack House in Wythenshawe, went on to a girls' grammar school – Whalley Range High School, now turned into a comprehensive – but then became one of the most celebrated A-level failures for many a long time. She still remembers the disappointment of the day that she heard she had failed.

It was not such a drawback in those days, though. It was certainly no barrier to taking up teaching as a career. "At a girls' grammar school in 1970, there weren't the choices they have now," she says. "The brightest went to university and the rest did teaching or nursing." However, she makes no bones about the fact that if it had happened to her today there would have been no way she could have ended up in teaching. "I chose it because there were so few options open to me," she said. "The quality of teaching is better now than when I went in. I would have had to go back and get the two A-levels."

She completed a teaching certificate at Coventry College of Further Education and was then accepted at the University of Warwick to complete a BA in education.

One of her tutors at that time who has kept in touch with her is Professor Jim Campbell, who is still with the university.

"I think she was a kind of Blairite before Blairism was invented," he said. "She was very interested in making sure her ideas would work. She was always ready to make strong contributions but from a pragmatic not an ideological point of view."

She would agree with the pragmatic rather than ideological tag. "I hated the sort of checklist politics where people would ask you whether you agreed with certain issues and from your answer assumed your views on everything else," she says.

"I think she is pretty straight for a politician and has got a lot of credibility in the education world as a result of her years as a teacher in Coventry," Professor Campbell added. (She went on to teach at Sidney Stringer community school in Coventry and left as head of sixth-form studies after 18 years in the profession when she became an MP in 1992).

The pragmatic rather than ideological strain in her character has shone forth even in the two weeks since she was appointed. During the first week, she announced a review of the controversial new exam reforms that led to the introduction of the new AS-level examination and a new key skills qualification for 16 to 18-year-olds. She also announced changes to the compulsory maths test to be taken by all trainee teachers before they start a full-time job in the classroom. Previously failure to pass the test would bar any trainee from teacher. Now, as a result of complaints from schools that they were in danger of losing excellent trainees at a time of teacher shortages, they will be able to take up a job and sit the test again.

Both these decisions were reactions to concerns that had been expressed and seen as sensible ones designed to aid the smooth running of the education service. It was not the kind of mantra we had been used to hearing from the Government that is never wrong.

No one, though, should doubt her determination to deliver on Tony Blair's agenda, which includes more private-sector involvement in the running of schools and a radical shake-up to the way secondary education is organised. As ever on the question of private-sector involvement, Estelle is keen to adopt a "what works best" approach, pointing out that some local education authority services have been turned round by bringing in a new broom from within the public sector, as in Liverpool and Leicester. However, she is adamant that any school, college or local authority service that wants to bring in the private sector should be free to do so and will introduce legislation to make sure that is the case.

She has already been robust in her defence of the other plank of the reforms, stoutly denying claims from the teachers' unions that the drive to produce more specialist secondary schools will lead to a two-tier system of "haves" and "have-nots". "This is not a two-tier system," she said. "We already have in our school system the beginnings of the diversity agenda. We have specialist schools, we have beacon schools, We have training schools, we have schools which are generously supporting schools in other parts of the education service. We have church schools. There is something special in this country about every single secondary school."

Even hard-bitten teachers' leaders will tell you they accept that Estelle has a passion for education and can talk enthusiastically and convincingly about it.

Witness the first speech she made on being appointed as David Blunkett's deputy three years ago. The event was a teachers' union conference and for an hour and 10 minutes she spoke of her passion for the subject and her desire to improve standards in education. The audience was spellbound. There were notes to hand but she ignored them, talking non-stop.

She is an impressive talker who lives and breathes the subject. She will often call teaching "the most wonderful vocation in the world". One of her comments often used in the past two weeks and during the election campaign is: "I think that this is one of the most important professions in the world and I've got the best generation of teachers that any Secretary of State has ever had." It is this enthusiasm which can help win even the most ardent opponents of some of the Government's reforms if not round to accepting her point of view then to dropping their opposition to what she is proposing. Take performance-related pay for teachers, one of her most significant achievements during her three years as understudy to David Blunkett at the then-Department for Education and Employment. She pushed the reform through in the teeth of hostility from the teachers' unions, the emphasis on the reform being subtly changed from "payment by results" to "performance-related promotion".

Do not be fooled into thinking that Estelle, who is single, is a complete workaholic. Away from work she enjoys swimming, watching a good film and socialising. She can quite disarmingly and engagingly turn the conversation away from education during important meetings. Visitors to her new office at Sanctuary Buildings, the home of the newly named Department for Education and Skills, are regaled about the big changes that there have been in her life as a result of her new job. "I've got windows now," she says excitedly. "I used to have an office with no windows and I had to ask people what the season was," she says with a big grin on her face – the same grin TV viewers were introduced to as she stood outside Number 10 after being told she had got the job. Not for her, the poker-faced walk away from Downing Street and inane comment about "what a lovely day it is". Just a big grin that said it all. No teachers' leader listening could fail to be convinced that she had got what she wanted – the education job.

Back at the department a few minutes later, the scenes were amazing. Normally reserved civil servants came out of their offices and cheered her to the rafters as she made her way from her poky little office to the one with the big windows.

Despite her successes as David Blunkett's deputy, few thought she would take over from him at the start of the election campaign. They thought the best she could hope for was a more minor-ranking Cabinet post. Some even doubted whether she would make the Cabinet at all. One adviser said: "I know Tony Blair wants to promote more women to the Cabinet but Estelle doesn't network in the same way as the others do. They're always being seen in the right places. Estelle's first priority is always to get on with the job."

She had matured as a politician during her four years in the department, though. (The first was spent as number three to David Blunkett.) A colleague recalls during the early days of the administration how she turned up in a House of Commons bar and muttered the words: "We must do something about Chris Woodhead." Eyebrows were raised. The controversial former chief schools inspector was unsackable because the Government had to show it was strong on standards. She would not make the same mistake today.

She earned her spurs during a robust speech at the National Union of Teachers' annual conference a year ago when hecklers tried to shout her down. It was an Easter Saturday. There was not much other news about. She carried on determinedly until the end of her speech giving as good as she got. The party hierarchy saw her performance on the evening news.

Yet, at the beginning of the campaign, it was widely felt that Stephen Byers, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and Estelle's predecessor as School Standards minister during the first year of the Blair administration, would succeed David Blunkett. To some observers, this appeared to be confirmed when halfway through the campaign he turned up at a Swindon college during a Tony Blair visit and joined the photo-call.

Some doubted whether Estelle could fight her own corner in Cabinet. A senior local government education officer said: "She has no experience of any other department. How can she fight against the others?" David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, never thought that would be a problem. "She will have the backing of No 10 if she needs it," he said.

David Blunkett, too, was fighting on Estelle's behalf and telling everybody – including the Prime Minister – she would make a fine Cabinet minister and a fine successor to him. She knew the reforms they were planning in the second term backwards, so why not give her the post?

Few people know what actually tipped the scales in her favour but it is relevant that at about the same time Labour came under some heavy fire for promoting too few women during the campaign. Alastair Campbell, Blair's right-hand man, was heard on a mobile phone ordering minions to make sure at least one woman appeared on the Labour Party press conference platform the following day. Education was Labour's top priority. The department already had a competent woman minister. Step forward Estelle. She has never stepped back again.

Life story

Born: 17 June 1952, Manchester

Parents: Charles Richard Morris, former post office union official and Labour MP for Openshaw 1963-1983, and Pauline (nee Dunn)

Education:: Rack House Primary, Wythenshawe; Whalley Range High School, Manchester, Coventry College of Education (Certificate of Education); University of Warwick (B Ed)

Occupation: Teacher, Sydney Stringer Community School, Coventry, 1974-1992

Parliamentary career: Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley since 1992; Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment, May 1997 to July 1998; Minister for School Standards, July 1997 to June 2001; Secretary of State for Education and Skills, June 2001

Marital status: Single

She says: "In teaching, you have always been able to earn more for managing. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's about time those excellent teachers who want to stay in the classroom can earn more as well."

They say: "I think she is very strong and determined to deliver on the Blair government's agenda. I'm very happy with the appointment but that doesn't mean I think she will be a soft touch."

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers

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