Why is Nicky Morgan the Education Secretary? She's long been billed as a rising star in the government and has put in some very passionate and impressive performances on the conference fringe this year. But her speech to the Conservative conference hall this afternoon didn't really answer that question. It was workmanlike, and its main mission seemed to be to tick boxes such as 'must be nice to teachers', rather than give us any sense of Morgan's personal mission.
Of course there was a difficult contrast between the minister apparently given the departmental responsibility because she's not Michael Gove and Michael Gove himself, who appeared emotional as delegates applauded him at length in the hall. The education section this afternoon was devoid of the same sense of moral mission that the same session last year had displayed. Then, a mother whose child attended a free school broke town in tears on stage, and a former US teaching union boss 'repented' of his opposition to education reform. Today's 'real people' slots before Morgan spoke did include Victoria Pendleton, which delegates seemed mildly impressed by, but they weren't particularly compelling, save the only female welder in Derby, who spoke about her work at Bombardier.
This is the olive branch Morgan waved at teachers:
'But most important of all, to the teachers, teaching assistants and support staff, who rise early every day, go to work, and turn our plans into action. If our school story has a hero, it is them.
'The teacher you see every day at the school gate - there when the children are dropped off, and again when they’re picked up. The teacher that works late into the night, and then does it all again the following day.
'As a parent – and through my own family – I know how dedicated and inspiring teachers can be. But in this job, I am reminded of it every day.Sometimes perhaps we take it for granted. We forget that teachers are not just teachers: they’re also friends and relatives. Mothers and fathers; sons and daughters; brothers and sisters.
'And when I hear of teachers working late into the night marking books, planning lessons, preparing for inspections that may or may not come, I do two things: I marvel at their dedication.But I also think, there must be a better way.
'I don’t want my child to be taught by someone too tired, too stressed and too anxious to do the job well. I don’t want any child to have to settle for that. So I have set two priorities: Firstly… to do everything I can to reduce the overall burden on teachers… And second… to ensure that teachers spend more time in the classroom teaching.'
This was all well and good - and to be fair to Michael Gove he always talked about our education system having the very best teachers. It was not the teachers themselves he accused of being the 'enemies of promise', as Labour would like to have you believe, but the militant teaching unions, some of whom would oppose him even if he asserted a belief that oxygen is useful to have around if you're a human being. But Morgan seemed far more enthused by sweet talking the teachers than she did about selling the government's education reforms, other than an attack on Labour for failing pupils. She did announce that 35 more free schools had been approved, presumably to show that the government was not abandoning its education revolution.
Of course, we know why Nicky Morgan is the eduction secretary, or at least we know why Michael Gove is not the education secretary, even though today's speech didn't make it clear why Morgan was the only person who could possibly have succeeded him. This is a Number 10 plan, not a lack of commitment from Morgan particularly. A small announcement on free schools will not get a huge write-up or much attention, a passage on teachers is the latest attempt to mollify the profession in time for next May's election, and an absence of any sense that the current Education Secretary wants to push the reforms further are all part of the plan to neutralise the electorally toxic legacy of Michael Gove. The applause for him in the conference hall was long and loud, but many delegates must be wishing that things had never reached the stage where he was too toxic to stay in that job.