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If in doubt, leave it out

Gillian Shephard's prim performance at the Conservative conference was hardly the inspiring oration expected of one spoken of as the party's future leader; it was more in the style of its present leader. It may be significant then that it was received by the party faithful with rather longer and warmer applause than the earlier conference address of Michael Portillo, the man more commonly supposed to be the heir apparent.

Does this point to the high respect and affection the sensible Mrs Shephard commands in her party? Or was it simply the result of having the Prime Minister on the platform beside her, along with the whole of her large departmental team of ministers and their acolytes, to lead and sustain the ovation?

It can hardly have been due to the content of her speech which was more remarkable for what it left out than what it included, even when viewed as one for a party audience.

The most shameful absence from the Education Secretary's speech was her failure to make it clear that the new professional qualification for headteachers was to be a level five NVQ. In doing so she missed an opportunity to underline the status and esteem in which she holds such qualifications.

It is not really surprising that Mrs Shephard did not acknowledge the widespread national discontent over the funding of schools. There was no sign of any relaxation in education of the Chancellor's stringent do-more-with-less financial doctrine. Mrs Shephard has clearly been spelling out to the Cabinet the electoral implications of yet another budget for larger classes. And the Prime Minister hinted earlier this week that schools would be made a special case. But on the conference dais Mrs Shephard restricted herself to John Major's cautious jam-tomorrow pledge earlier this year; schools would be at the front of the Government's priorities as the economy grows.

There was no sign either of the looked-for expansion of the Assisted Places Scheme to contrast with Labour's promise to abolish it. As will become apparent today, these goodies may have been saved to provide some real meat for John Major's own end-of-conference party piece, having already highlighted education as central to the restoration of his own and his government's standing in his recent speech in Birmingham.

If schools are to be made a special case, we may still have to wait until the Budget and beyond to find out exactly how much of one they are to be. Easing the restrictions on local authorities' powers of local taxation seems to have been ruled out, at least by Treasury minister William Waldegrave. Funding teachers' pay rises would obviously help schools. But it will come nowhere near the Pounds 1.3 billion the local authorities say needs to be spent to restore services to the levels of three years ago. In many instances funding this year's pay rise will not prevent further cuts. Many authorities cushioned their schools against last year's cuts by the one-off use of reserves; where those coffers are now bare, cuts will have to be made simply to match existing levels of expenditure and income, even if next year's inflation is covered.

Mrs Shephard concentrated on the drive to raise standards for all pupils. It is hard to see expansion of assisted places playing much of a part in this unless it is to underline the real costs of effective education. But more state funding for independent-school places does not necessarily amount to the kind of lurch to the Right that seems to have sickened the defecting former minister Alan Howarth. Certainly Labour is not dismissing out of hand the idea of working more closely with independent schools.

If levels of funding for assisted places were more like those for pupils in locally-managed or grant-maintained schools (as they may already be at the sixth-form level) it should not cost any more or amount to unfair privilege. That being the case, it is hard to see why hard-up parents should be denied such a choice or why good schools who wish to share their benefits should be denied this means of partially opting in.

The Prime Minister's enthusiasm for all schools to become grant-maintained was another notable absence from Mrs Shephard's address. And mentions of fast-tracks to GM status and allowing successful schools to expand there were none. Clearly the Education Secretary was not looking for cheap applause. She told a caller to the BBC TV phone-in that immediately followed her speech that opting out was progressing steadily at the rate of two schools a week. At that rate it would take more than 200 years for Mr Major's vision to be realised.

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