Major hogs Gillian's limelight

Biddy Passmore

Biddy Passmore reports on how the Prime Minister used education to rally the Tory faithful in Blackpool.

Once again, it was the Prime Minister who made the real news on education and his Education Secretary who had to scrabble about for titbits to keep the conference happy. Next year, she should put her foot down and insist on announcing the real news herself.

But John Major has elected to make education his principal campaigning issue and he needed to announce a policy that would be both popular and clearly differentiated from Labour's. Labour has announced that it will abolish the Assisted Places Scheme: the Conservatives, therefore, are to double it (see page 8).

In his speech, the Prime Minister stressed the theme of "choice, choice, choice". Labour had opposed all the Government's moves to extend it, such as nursery vouchers, but he still wanted to do more.

Assisted places had been a great success but Labour hated them, he said, adding: "in Labour's view there is no place for children of low-income families in private schools . . . Labour's message to them is: no choice for the poor".

Mr Major, proclaiming himself a One Nation Tory like Iain Macleod, said he wanted to give more children the opportunity to attend our best private schools. But he wanted to go beyond that, to let parents have more specialist schools and more religious schools if they wanted them. This was a reference to recent changes in the regulations governing the setting up of grant-maintained schools, which remove the priority given to local need.

"This choice is not a dogma, it isn't elitism, " he declared. "It is based on the belief that children are first and foremost the responsibility of parents, and that parents know best what is best for their children, and we will deliver it."

Excellence should be the Conservative watchword, the Prime Minister said. Good schools should be allowed to expand and bad schools should be closed because they were failing their pupils.

"Of course, closing bad schools means a row, but it's the right row to have, and Gillian Shephard is prepared to have it," he said, warning those who wanted to take on the Education Secretary: "Don't mess with Gill."

She smiled amid the general laughter and chose to take the comment as a warning to Cabinet colleagues trying to take her on in quite another context: the current public- spending round. Speaking later on the BBC, she said she had been "a bit surprised" by Mr Major's remarks and added: "But I was sitting next to William Waldegrave and I think he got the message."

The Prime Minister stopped well short of promising to force all schools to opt out, merely saying he wanted "to enable all schools to become grant-maintained".

Although Mrs Shephard had had no announcement of comparable interest to the plan to double the number of Assisted Places, her own speech had gone down well and produced one of the longest standing ovations of the conference.

The new professional qualification for heads and the plans to improve spoken English were both popular, even though her speech did not include the magic name of Trevor McDonald, who is to chair the committee to promote better use of English. (That was announced later.) In fact, it does not take much to please the Tory party conference. Charm and competence and concern about standards of English (combined with the use of a good soundbite about "communication by grunt") have carried Mrs Shephard through two of them with very little trouble.

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