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Estelle Morris MP, Education Secretary
Estelle Morris MP, Education Secretary

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST: Education, the government has always said, is the top priority. In its first four years the focus was on primary schools. Now it looks like secondary schools are next in the effort to drive up standards. And the new Education Secretary Estelle Morris is here. Estelle welcome. Very good to have you with us. You've been going to publish, or the department's been going to publish a white paper next week, for some time it's been scheduled, and now the word is that you may decide to postpone that. Why is that?

ESTELLE MORRIS: Well we will publish it now probably at the start of September. I think two reasons really. If we'd published it this week, schools are actually on holiday. And although teachers aren't the only audience for the white paper, they are a clear part of it and I wasn't very happy with sending out a white paper, it's a really important document, it's going to talk about our vision and plans for four years on either the day that the schools broke up or quite honestly two weeks after some have already done so. And what I wanted to do was leave the summer holiday, publish it in September when the schools are back and then really start a thorough consultation. I think the truth is that when the election was going to be early it was possible to get it out two weeks before the end of term but with the delay, the delay in the election it really did run too close to the end of term.

DAVID FROST: That's right, so it's been affected by foot and mouth indirectly.

ESTELLE MORRIS: Yes, to some extent, yes.

DAVID FROST: The Guardian said that you've shelved it for this period until the autumn amid wrangles over how far to push the privatisation of school services. Is that, is that a contentious point still?

ESTELLE MORRIS: No, no that's not the reason why the white paper was delayed. I can see that it makes a better story but the idea that it's just the end of term isn't a particularly good headline. But that's not true. But I would say is there's some really tough decisions to be made and it's going to be a white paper that faces up to those tough decisions, so in that respect I expect the autumn will be about tough talking, sharing the ideas, and arguing our corner. But that's how white papers should be.

DAVID FROST: And for instance the unions aren't happy about the idea that private companies might be given contracts to run certain departments, maybe maths, maybe science and so on. Is that an idea you can persuade people about, do you think?

ESTELLE MORRIS: You see, I think you start from the wrong end there. Just take it back a stage. I think we've got some excellent teachers. We've got some first class schools and I go round schools and I see sheer inspiration. I take my hat off to what's being achieved. But I think everybody in the country, every parent knows that we're not good enough and when you compare ourselves with other competitors we're behind them in some cases. And I think as Chris Woodhead was just saying, there are some schools and the irony is they very often serve the most disadvantaged communities, where we've never ever got it right. I've got a real bottom line that we've got to make that happen, we've got to get that improvement in public services, not just for some but for everyone. And if using some of the skills from the private sector helps me to do that, fine, but it's not the only thing. I tell you what else I want to do. Why can't we, in the schools that are good, why can't we use them to work with the schools that are not as good to see if they can learn from each other. And the sort of debate I want to open up is to say, this is about reform, if we're going to improve our public services we've got to be first of all be honest about how good they are, and I think second we've really got to look at what works. And what works I want to embrace.

DAVID FROST: And what about, what about in the situation where if there was a private company in doing maths, or doing science and so on, and there was a disagreement with the headmaster, let's say, over discipline or marking or something like that, who in those circumstances wins the argument?

ESTELLE MORRIS: That would not arise. The headteacher runs the school and what is clear about a school is that the headteacher has the power and the authority and the freedom to run that school. I've never seen a good school that's not got an outstanding headteacher. And I wouldn't do, ever, ever do anything to threaten that. Let me give you an example of how I think the private sector might be able to be helpful. At the end of the day we'll only raise standards if we support our teachers. I don't teach, the private sector doesn't teach, the people actually meeting our children day in and day out are the teachers who stand and sit in front of them. And what I'm wondering is, is there a range of things we can do to support that front line, to support those teachers? And if it's about providing better information, if it's about doing some of the administration, if it's about perhaps organising training for leadership, I don't mind bringing somebody else to support them. And that's what we've tried to do over the last four years. We're really tried to build up support organisations to support teachers but never, ever take your eye off this. That the judgement about whether somebody should come into school to help is how well they will support teachers in teaching our children.

DAVID FROST: AS levels. You're probably very sorry for the aggro that's been caused to 250,000 or however many boys and girls over that, and you are obviously going to modify the AS system, as it went in its first year. How, how widely are you going to modify it?

ESTELLE MORRIS: Well, it wasn't implemented well. I mean, I've said that and I'll say it again. I think we ought not to forget that the idea was, the original idea was welcomed by everybody so nobody thought that our students should just do three straight A levels and I want to get back to that, to get back to the idea of agreement. And that is about a broader curriculum. I think there's two things really. We can do something about the testing. I believe in testing, I believe in rigorous testing. But not testing every month when it actually distracts from teaching and learning, so the first thing I want to change is actually to make the testing not less rigorous but to organise it in a way that's easier for teachers and students and the other thing which will take a year longer is I was being told that some of the subjects, the weight of the content of the subject just wasn't right, it was too heavy. And I want the exam boards to look at that, but I don't want it to be rushed. So for next year we'll have some changing to the assessment and we'll give teachers choice about how they handle the assessment, but after that we'll...

DAVID FROST: But next year, next year will they, will 17-year-olds be still taking five AS subjects?

ESTELLE MORRIS: Oh, yes, I don't want to go away from that broader curriculum, but...

DAVID FROST: In the first year of the sixth form?

ESTELLE MORRIS: In the first year of the sixth form. But what I've said to them is that if they want, and if their teachers think it's right, none of them should have to take the assessment until the end of the year. The minute I say that, people say that they've enjoyed taking the end of modular testing, and I want them to still have that option but there almost was like a train of learning for a month, taking an exam, it seemed in some cases, so the clear message is, I'd say to the youngsters, look, the world in which they're growing up, sorry, but they need a broader curriculum if they're going to compete for jobs here and abroad, so I do want to keep that. But I'm saying about the assessment, if it suits the child and the school, and the teacher it needn't happen by the end of the year.

DAVID FROST: But you still think, the basic thing that other people say, Estelle, as you know, is that 16 exams, 17 exams, 18 exams. Is one year too many of exams? Isn't it better to go back to the system of 16 exams, 18 exams?

ESTELLE MORRIS: Well funny enough if schools choose to do it they can roll all the exams 'til the end of the second year six. So that's an option. But you know, if we look back that's a tough time when you're at school when you're 16 to 18. You do work hard. I know that. And a lot hangs on it. And if you get the A levels, go on to university or go into further training, it affects your life and I just worry sometimes that we're in danger of going back to a language that says, yeah, you're working too hard at 16 to 18. I want those youngsters to work hard because I want them to do well but I don't want them to be fighting against unreasonable bureaucracy and I think they have been doing for the last year.

DAVID FROST: What about faith schools? You're all for those?

ESTELLE MORRIS: Yes, because, yes, they've got a long tradition, a long history in our country and very popular with parents, with Church of England and Roman Catholic churches have played a very important part in the development of faith schools, and we want to support them in that. What we've done over the last four years in the last parliament was that we've opened that up to other faiths as well and that's one of the other changes.

DAVID FROST: Lots of people like in Bradford, people of Bradford, and so on, say, the last thing we want is one faith schools, we want more integration and not one faith schools.

ESTELLE MORRIS: I've thought a lot about that over the last week since what we heard about Bradford. And I think there's a number of things, we wouldn't open faith schools unless that's what parents want. It's a response to what parents want for their children. But I think the way Bradford's been described and we need to do some serious thinking. In Birmingham, the city where my constituency is, there are some of our inner city schools that are 98% Muslim and they do well and we have many examples of good multiracial schools and we ought to hang onto that in the days and weeks to come.

DAVID FROST : Thank you very much.


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