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Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary pronounced guilty of that most heinous of crimes - treating teachers and heads in a civilised fashion - has provided Carborundum with a fascinating lesson in political skin-saving this week.

Last Wednesday at around 4pm, an SOS went out to Fleet Street's finest from the Department for Education and Employment enquiring whether a gap in the diary could be made for lunchtime drinks with Mrs S the following day to discuss her recent mission to Chile and Colombia and events for the rest of the month.

The acceptances flowed back (the Sanctuary Buildings sarnies are rather good) and the puzzled hacks thought little more about it except to wonder if the rally had been inspired by a story in that day's Mirror suggesting that Mrs S had suddenly disappeared from public view (a tale which apparently infuriated Conservative Central Office).

The plot thickened to congealing point the following morning, however, when the Telegraph launched into a full-scale attack on the delightful Secretary of State, accusing her of being soft on teachers and suggesting that Conservative chairman Brian Mawhinney wanted to get a real hard-liner into the department as minister to give Labour a run for their money (Eric Forth now fully occupied being tough on employers). Within, a leading article harrumphed: "'Don't mess with Gill,' said Mr Major at last year's party conference. He'd better mess with her as quickly as possible."

Meanwhile, the Independent trumpeted that this week's competitiveness White Paper was going to announce vouchers for sixth-formers and that Mrs S, traditionally chilly on the idea, had been over-ruled by a Cabinet coalition of right-wingers and jolly old Ken Clarke.

Not the sort of press any minister hoping to stay on in the next reshuffle really wants to read over the cornflakes in the course of a year, let alone all on the same day.

Underlying Mrs S's problems appears to be the perception among senior ranks that she failed to deny quickly enough the rumours that she might succeed Major as PM last summer, and was indeed strongly suspected of briefing journalists on the subject.

Oh, and she's a woman, enough cause in itself for condemnation among certain Tories.

So, to Sanctuary Buildings for a most peculiar gathering. Distributing bonhomie along with South American wine and tomatoes, Mrs S's opening gambit was perhaps disingenuous: "I hope you all note that this gathering was organised yesterday, not today."

Pure coincidence, then. Or perhaps the Government can boast its first ever clairvoyant Education Secretary?

Mrs S would, she said, be talking about the success of her South American trip before giving a quick taster of initiatives to come during the summer and early autumn.

What followed included tantalising glimpses of stricter school discipline, more powers for schools, a national curriculum for teacher training and a tight ideological grip on the new literacy and numeracy centres - the sort of stuff to make right-wingers get quite excited. However, glimpses were all that would be given until this week, when there would be another press briefing on school improvement, plus a few titbits of what can be expected from the White Paper at the end of June and on teacher training in September.

In other words, she was giving a press conference about a press conference which was, er, previewing a couple of press conferences.

The bemused hacks did their best. Had she talked to Brian Mawhinney? "He rang me up this morning on reading the Daily Telegraph," she said brightly. What had he said? "You'd better ask him," she retorted, with some comment - apparently about his laughter - buried in a bite of Chilean tomato. Then, it seemed that he had not rung her but they had met in Cabinet and that was all she was going to say.

"Who's here from the Daily Telegraph?" she enquired, as its doughty correspondent John Clare reluctantly indicated his presence. "I'd like a word with you afterwards."

And so the briefing ended with a gloomy-looking Mr Clare and Mrs Shephard ensconced in a corner for some five minutes as fascinated journalists attempted to decipher lip movements or body language - sadly, to little avail.

The following day's clutch of news stories (coinciding, perhaps fortunately, with Labour leader Tony Blair's public abandoning of mixed-ability teaching) must have given Mrs S some cause for hope, conveying as they did her new hard(ish) line while, in the case of the Telegraph, apportioning blame to her political adviser Dr Elizabeth Cottrell, who appears to be suspected of being too clever by half, a cardinal sin in the Tory party.

Meanwhile, Sunday journalists appeared to be split on whether Mrs S was in accord with the Prime Minister or at odds (over the issue of schools being allowed to select pupils).

However, Carborundum was fascinated to notice that, even with her back to the political wall, Mrs Shephard cannot bring herself to go the full right-wing hog. On the current orthodoxy of whole-class teaching a la mode (ie, as done in Barking and Dagenham), she was at pains to point out that it would not be an entirely familiar experience for the over-forties. It involved, she said, "a tremendous amount of self-expression, an enormous amount of class participation and two-way exchange with the teacher. A lot of skill is required, and it's quite hard work."

Self-expression? Class participation? Skill and hard work for teachers? Could sound a bit soft to Disgusted of Central Office, surely?

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