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Journey into the land of the fee

Musician, writer, tourists' champion: Jonathan Shephard is the new voice of private schools. Neal Smith reports

He is a former consumers' champion who knows a thing or two about business and the law.

All of which should come in useful for Jonathan Shephard in his new job as general secretary of the Independent Schools Council - especially as it is now embroiled in an Office for Fair Trading investigation into fee-setting.

The OFT is looking into claims that four high-profile schools regularly exchanged information on costs and fee increases in breach of the 1998 Competition Act. At least 60 other schools have now been ordered to hand over financial documents.

"It is political correctness gone mad when schools cannot now even talk to each other about the price of flute lessons for fear of breaking the law," said Mr Shephard.

"But I hope the OFT can join with us to find a system that meets their demands without stifling the sharing of information used to ensure best practice takes place - we need to find a middle ground," he said.

Mr Shephard, 55, has spent most of his working life in managerial roles. He was managing director of Southern Magazines and championed the cause of holiday-makers' rights as editor of Holiday Which? magazine.

Two of his 12-year-old triplets are privately educated. The third opted for a state grammar school.

Mr Shephard himself attended Sir Thomas Rich's school, a state grammar in Gloucester. Both he and his twin brother Richard are musical and enjoy singing and composing music.

Richard, who was privately educated, is the headmaster of The Minster School in York where fees are pound;1,940 per pupil per term. "Jonathan's skills and experience - at the Consumers' Association in particular - will be transferable to his new role. I doubt he'll need any advice from me," he said.

The 1,300 private schools which the ISC represents also face the prospect of proving their public benefit under the forthcoming Charities' Bill.

"I'm in favour of increasing the number of working-class children going to private schools and I am confident that the schools will be able to prove their enormous public benefit," Mr Shephard said.

This week, however, shadow education secretary Tim Yeo denied that the "passport" for schools proposed by the Tories could be used in private schools.

Mr Shephard took two degrees, English and law, at Oxford university. After graduating, he briefly flirted with the idea of becoming a teacher. "But the guy interviewing me had such a boring voice I just nodded off," he said. "It was the beginning and end of my teaching career."

He also confesses to "dropping off" a few times in court and left the legal profession because it was also too dull. Friends and former colleagues describe him as anything but boring and pay tribute to his ebullience and sense of fun.

He hopes his first novel, completed during his "gap year" in 2003, lives up to a similar billing.

"It's a sequel to Pride and Prejudice," he said. "It's got lots of sex in it and Darcy is seduced by his wife's sister."

He is yet to find a publisher, but perhaps he could seek advice from his new colleague, Dr Martin Stephen. The high master of Manchester grammar and chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference is a well-published author and an authority on bodice-rippers and historical novels.

"I think my stuff's a bit racier, but I look forward to exchanging notes," said Mr Shephard.

Letters 24

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