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Thursday, 24 October, 2002, 16:24 GMT 17:24 UK
Estelle Morris resignation: Ask Barry Sheerman MP
Estelle Morris

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    Estelle Morris' resignation as Education Secretary for England has taken most people by surprise.

    She stepped down last night, saying she felt her performance had not been as effective as she would have liked.

    The Prime Minister, Tony Blair met Ms Morris on Tuesday to discuss her wish to resign, and told her to think about it overnight - she did but remained "absolutely sure" she wanted to go.

    The resignation of Education Secretary Estelle Morris was welcomed enthusiastically by the Conservatives - but branded "a tragedy" by one teachers' union.

    Do you think Estelle Morris was right to go? Will the education system be better off without her?

    Barry Sheerman, chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee took your questions in a LIVE interactive forum.



    Welcome to this BBC News Interactive forum. The resignation of Estelle Morris as Education Secretary for England has taken most people by surprise. She stepped down on Wednesday after admitting she had not done well in her job. Her replacement is the former Labour Party Chairman, Charles Clarke.

    Was Estelle Morris right to go? We'll be putting your questions to Barry Sheerman, Chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee. Thank you very much for joining us Mr Sheerman. I would just say at this point that you are a Labour MP so obviously not completely neutral on this one.

    Let's put the first question to you. It comes from Chris O'Connell, Netherlands: Charles Clarke as a replacement? What do you think?

    Barry Sheerman:

    I think he's a very competent replacement. I'm very sad to see Estelle Morris go. My job, as the chairman of a select committee, is to check performance of the whole team of education ministers and I've been very satisfied with the performance of Estelle Morris. I think she's wrong to say that she wasn't up to the job - we thought she was.

    She had total support from No. 10, total support on the Back Benches. It's totally unusual for a minister in those circumstances to resign. I understand that it was a personal decision. Charles Clarke's now having to take over. He had a training as a junior education minister. He had an apprenticeship as a Cabinet Minister. He knows how the levers of power work. He used to work in Neil Kinnock's inner cabinet when he was leader of the Opposition. I've got a lot of confidence in him.


    Bit chalk and cheese though isn't it - from gentle hands to tough guy, isn't it?

    Barry Sheerman:

    I think that many of the jobs that Charles Clarke had in the past were being the tough guy, trying to get people to do things they didn't otherwise want to do.

    In education he's going to have to develop his diplomatic skills because you don't tell teachers what to do, you have to persuade them - you have to go halfway, you have to work with heads. There's such a multiplicity of organisations in the education system and if you don't get them working together - if you not the sort of conductor of the orchestra - you're not going to be successful. So he's going to have to hone his diplomatic skills.


    Elliot C, UK: Do you feel that Estelle Morris has paid the price of the policies of her predecessors?

    Barry Sheerman:

    No I don't. When the Labour Government came in, if you remember, four out of ten of our children weren't meeting literacy and numeracy targets. They were, basically, not able to read and write at age 11 years-old. No government could sit on their hands and say well that's ok.

    The literacy and numeracy targets, introducing testing - one can understand why all that had to come about in order to shake up the educational system. We've consistently, over five years, got rising standards. They still rose but just missed the target that both David and Estelle wanted in the last month. But a pretty good performance.

    So my view is, yes, the Government is radically discontent about the quality of education that was being delivered. It is improving but the job is only half done.


    Ian Crawford, London School of Economics: Estelle Morris was a respected Schools Minister. Does her departure indicate that the education department should be broken up as has happened in Scotland?

    Barry Sheerman:

    No. I know Ian very well. He's a very, well-respected academic and I know him because I'm a governor of the London School of Economics. I don't think the department should be broken up. I think that it is a big department but it has great strength because it is able operate in a seamless way right through.

    As I said earlier, the Government came in - massive investment - 6 billion a year into pre-school nursery places as of right at 4 and now 3 years-old. Through to the 7 and 11 year-olds.

    I think the government tanks are now on the lawns of secondary education because we've got to get that right. That's where working-class children - kids from poorer backgrounds - start to fail. Then keeping children in education after 16 to 18 year-old and then onto a 50% target in higher education. So I think the seamless approach in England is preferable.


    K Esmail, Leicester: Aren't the biggest losers in all this going to be the teachers?

    Barry Sheerman:

    I think there are two losers. I said in the Chamber in Question Time this morning, that public life is going to be the poorer for losing someone who is so, not only committed and able, but one of the most honest and direct politicians I've ever worked with.

    It's a pity that one's got to have such a tough skin to go in for spin and to put on a front to be a Minister. Estelle Morris didn't like that - that wasn't Estelle and I think that those qualities were Estelle's and I thought that they made her a very fine Minister. I'm very sad that we're getting to the stage it seems that you can't have people with that sort of degree of sensitivity that can continue on in public life. I think that's wrong.

    But what a speech last night. Can you imagine a man going on television and saying what she said? All power to her. More female Ministers if that a quality.


    It was a remarkable interview - it was amazingly frank. But at the end of the day, if she didn't really feel up to the job, don't you really think that the Prime Minister should have had second thoughts about her performance?

    Barry Sheerman:

    No, I think it's only recently this summer with the pressure she's been under - I think two things happened: one is the ball bounced into her court three times in three areas where she was not directly responsible - and I think that was terribly frustrating for her.

    The vetting of teachers was a Home Office problem. The problems with A and AS level results was in the hands of the independent regulator and exam boards. All these things really were at one remove from her and I think she felt very frustrated she couldn't get to grips and get them sorted.

    On the other hand, she had some terrible press - her privacy was stripped away. She had people camping on the doorstep of her relatives and she hated that.


    Dagmar Koeneking, UK: Don't you think if Ministers want to take the credit for the successes of their departments, that ultimately they also have to take responsibility for the things that go wrong?

    Barry Sheerman:

    Dagmar is absolutely right. The conundrum here is here is a government that on all the tests is doing well in the education sector. Standards are being driven up - plus 6% spending on education every year. PFI's delivering new schools as well as new hospitals up and down the country. There's never been so much investment in education. So in a sense, this last five years has been a triumphal time for education in many ways.

    Now part of my committee's job is to make sure that money is well spent. We get good well-designed schools, teachers are highly motivated and all those other things. But by and large, I would have thought that here was a Secretary of State that should have been congratulated on the wonderful job she's done. I'm just terribly disappointed she didn't continue at least to the next election.


    Dave, UK: Is there a lesson to be learned from Ms Morris' resignation?

    Barry Sheerman:

    There's a lesson to be learned - they are some of the lessons I referred to. I think that we need a greater quality of people like Estelle in public life. We want, in a sense, to find out what went wrong for her and to learn those lessons. What I find all the time is that with politicians we only will be as good as we possibly can be in terms of running this country - both in terms of parliamentarians and the government we produce out of Parliament - if we have high quality people coming in and staying in.

    I sometimes get a little bit worried having been in the House of Commons over 20 years that too many people come now come into politics, they come in fresh from university, they work as a research assistant, they stay on working in central office or in the Labour Party headquarters and then they become Members of Parliament and then they become Ministers. They have no experience of outside life. If we're looking for quality and diversity, Parliament must go out there and parties must go out there and make sure all the time good quality people come through otherwise we all get poor government.


    Colin Barnes, England: We all know that no-one is perfect and that we all make mistakes. In the end aren't we going to get what we deserve, deceitful leaders who can best hide their errors. Do you fear for our future if we don't allow our leaders to make mistakes and yet remain in office?

    Barry Sheerman:

    Yes, I think that's true. But Estelle is the classic one where she hasn't made a mistake - no one blamed her. This was an absolutely personal decision of hers to go and no one is blaming her - at least no one who understands.

    Of course the official Opposition will say - oh, she went because the policies of the Labour Government are awful and she made mistakes and she promised to resign if targets weren't up to a certain extent. And of course for Oppositions, that's their job to do that.

    But I would ask your viewers and listeners to be with me in being more optimistic about politicians and politics. We have a wonderful media industry these days that think a lot of us are cynical spin people. You know, most of the people I know in politics aren't - they're honest people who came into politics to do something serious for the good of the people - on all sides of Parliament.

    With 659 MPs, you're going to get some strange ones, some rotten ones, some iffy ones. But the bulk of the people that I know that come into politics are pretty good people and I think they reflect the rest of our country who are made up of pretty good people.


    Dominic Dinardo, UK: Why can't we be honest and say she's lucky she wasn't sacked? Five years on, education is a mess. My kids are now in private schools.

    Barry Sheerman:

    Well good for you - if you can afford private school and that's what you decide, that's up to you. The Leader of the Opposition sends his son to Eton, that's up to him.

    But I've always believed that you send your children to the state school with the kinds of people that grow up in your community and you support the schools that exist in your community. And rather than selfishly leaving a school, you stay in there, you become a governor, you help drive up the standards.

    I just took my Select Committee to two cities - to Birmingham and to Auckland - to look at education in two cities. Birmingham - the most improved education service in the country. Why has it improved? Good political leadership, inspiration from the Director of Education, Tim Brighouse, and a lot of parents, teachers and heads that believe in the state system and have driven up standards.

    I think it's a great shame when people leave and create a nice little selfish cocoon for themselves. I believe in staying with your community and making sure you get the best out of that.


    Faisal Khan, UK: Don't you think any Minister presiding over one of the greatest scandals the British education system has seen (the A-level fiasco) had to take responsibility and resign?

    Barry Sheerman:

    No and I'll tell you for why. Because the chattering classes - everyone in the educational system a few years ago said A-levels were awful, people were concentrating on a narrow group of subjects at 16 years old - much too early. Three subjects at 16 years old - sometimes four but normally three - for two years and that was the only concentration they had and they would go off to university and perhaps be even more focused in what they studied. So why don't we copy other people - have a broader curriculum between 16 and 18 - and it was a response to that pressure right across the board, in comes the new AS-levels where you do four/five subjects in the first year and then three in your final year. That was a move to try and make the A-level more modern and broader.

    Of course as soon as you introduce a new system, an awful lot of people then come out of the woodwork and say oh no, no, no - this is terrible because it's not what we were used to, it's not as knowable, our children are being guinea pigs and of course every change has the guinea pig generation. And so then everyone says everything is wrong. And then we have the examination boards and the regulator who get it wrong.

    Now I have to tell you that I've looked very closely at all the evidence and I don't see any fault on the Secretary of State in terms of what happened this summer. I can see a Qualifications and Curriculum Authority that I think got its supervision wrong. I saw three examining boards who I think got it wrong but will get it right in future.


    Paul B, Oxfordshire: Of the remaining members of the Government, can we now look forward to those who clearly are "not up to the job" to follow this fine example?

    Barry Sheerman:

    Well if they're not up to the job they should move on - government isn't for everyone. I have to remind your viewers that the average life expectancy in office of a Minister is about 2.3 years - that's not a very long time. Some people much prefer and we all the time should, I think, remember that there's a good alternative career being a senior parliamentarian, rising through the ranks, becoming a chairman of select committee - that's good too.

    Being a Minister isn't the be all and end all. I like the system I've introduced in my committee where we regularly assess Ministers - check them and try to see what their performance is like and then share that with the rest of Parliament.

    When people see an under-performing Minister - Estelle was certainly not one of those - the word soon goes about and that is why there is such a short time in office for a lot of Ministers.


    I am afraid we'll have to leave it there. Our thanks to Barry Sheerman for sharing his time with us and a thank you to you for your e-mails.

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