Baroness Sally Morgan: “I want people to be able to fulfil their potential”

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“I found Jeremy Corbyn … “. Baroness Sally Morgan trails off, deciding how diplomatic to be. Not very, is the conclusion she seems to come to: Corbyn was a “ridiculous leader of the Labour Party”, the Labour peer tells me.

Perhaps this judgement is unsurprising. A former senior advisor to Tony Blair, Baroness Morgan hails from the opposite wing of Labour to Jeremy Corbyn. Much of her career has involved working cross-party, and Morgan was even appointed as Chair of Ofsted by David Cameron’s coalition government in 2010.

“I found Jeremy Corbyn … a ridiculous leader of the Labour Party”

Before her political career began, though, Baroness Morgan studied geography at Van Mildert College. Morgan recalls her experience of Durham fondly: “I loved Van Mildert … I loved the modernity of the place when I was there, I liked the feeling of space … It was a very lively college.”

Whilst at Durham, Morgan organised a conference for schools in the North-East, focused on widening access to further education. She notes the irony of this, considering her future involvement in the education sector. “I spent a lot of my life looking at widening access to higher education, and, in fact, without quite realising it, I did it while I was at University”.

What ultimately drew Morgan into politics, though, was a talk she heard given by Neil Kinnock, the then Shadow Education Secretary and future Labour leader. Morgan describes how she was inspired by his “drive to try and open education up to a broader group of people”. It was this idea, she says, that education could act “as a powerful engine for social mobility” that persuaded her to join the Labour Party. “It’s something I still feel very strongly about”.

Morgan consistently emphasises the importance of equality in education. I ask her what she means by this. What would she want the country’s education system to look like? 

“I want equality of opportunity. I want people to be able to fulfil their potential. So, I think there’s always a danger that, if you just talk about equality in the broader sense, you can lose … excellence and individuality”.

More practically, Morgan continues, this means “fair access to great teaching” and ensuring that there are “great headteachers” all around the country.

Morgan then turns to the impact Covid-19 has had on schools and universities. “I think there needs to be quite a rethink, personally, of where we are”. “Covid has been a bit of a wake-up call.”

“Covid has been a bit of a wake-up call”

“All the evidence shows that the most disadvantaged, particularly in poor schools have suffered the most … in the last eighteen months, and the trouble is you can’t make that OK by saying “we’ll just say that people can have different grades”” Morgan says. “So, I think there needs to be serious work and resource put into what we mean by catch-up”.

The former Chief of Ofsted is especially scathing about Gavin Williamson’s leadership, when he was Secretary of Education. “I’ve never come across a person so incompetent and so unsuited to being education secretary. I thought he was an absolute embarrassment, actually, and at every stage failed”. She pauses, exasperated. “He had no strategy, he had no solutions, he had no plan. I thought he was an embarrassment.”

“I thought he [Gavin Williamson] was an embarrassment”

Morgan’s frustration over how the government has handled the education sector and national assessments during the pandemic is apparent. So what would Morgan have done differently?

“I would have kept the exams, actually”, she says. “Although there are problems with the testing regime, I think probably, on balance, it would have been fairer to carry on with it” than to have teacher assessed grades.

I ask whether it would have been practical to organise exams during the pandemic. Especially during the first lockdown, would national assessments have been possible to arrange?

Baroness Morgan answers immediately: “Yes.” “There was noise, but I think, actually, you could have argued it through, if it was delivered in the proper way.”

Morgan suggests that core subjects could have been examined using local community centres and spaces as exam halls. “If you’d said to a local authority … in your patch, ‘Can you make sure that there is provision to have exams delivered and work with schools in your area?’, I think that would have been doable … but they [the government] weren’t prepared to send resources or influences or powers or decisions down to the local areas.”

“We’ve got a very populist Prime Minister who’s not very interested in government”

Towards the end of the call, I ask about Keir Starmer. What does the Baroness think of the Labour Party leader?

 “I think he’s got a set of politics that are his. What he isn’t is a Corbynite … he’s not someone who supports the far left”. “He grew up with politics being discussed around the kitchen table; it’s sort of in his bones.”

“He takes Parliament seriously, he wants to rebuild a Labour Party that’s rooted and has support across the country”, Morgan continues.

But will Starmer’s approach work?

“I think it is very hard for him at the moment because we’ve got a very populist Prime Minister who’s not very interested in government, in my view. He’s interested in power and being Prime Minister”, Morgan sighs, and that “makes it difficult to engage in a serious way”. “It’s damaging for everybody”

Image: Parliamentary Portrait

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