Shephard faces greatest test of stamina

Geraldine Hackett

Geraldine Hackett ponders the pitfalls awaiting the trailblazing Secretary of State . . .

After only a year in the job as Education Secretary, Gillian Shephard has moved up the pecking order. The Cabinet reshuffle sees her presiding over an even larger department of state - her loyal local paper was even moved last week to describe her as the most powerful woman in British politics.

The rapid rise in Mrs Shephard's fortunes - she has only been an MP since 1987 - has not, however, been achieved without a certain loss of innocence. It may not entirely suit her that the re-structuring of Cabinet committees brings her department within the oversight of the deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine.

In practical terms, she has had to accept the insistence from the Prime Minister's office that her officials draw up a voucher scheme for the expansion of nursery education for four-year-olds. It is rumoured that a number of schemes got sent back to the drawing board.

This autumn's public expenditure round will be a critical test of whether Mrs Shephard can carry the Cabinet in achieving a better deal for education than she managed last time. There is much speculation that there is to be an additional billion pounds for the service. On the back benches there is a nervousness about the impact on voters of classes of 30 or more, but tax cuts and higher public spending is not an option open to the Treasury.

Cabinet defeats do not appear to have dampened her enthusiasm. The merger with employment she sees as an opportunity to tackle the mish-mash of qualifications available post-16 and finally achieve the impossible goal of parity between the academic and the vocational awards. (The misreading of the new vocational courses for 14-year-olds - reported as sending youngsters out to work - demonstrates the problems ahead.) The new department is being restructured in a way that dispenses with the usual Civil Service hierarchy. The work is to be divided equally between seven newly-appointed director generals. Significantly, responsibility for qualifications and the curriculum from the age of 14 is not in the schools policy directorate, but will be handled in conjunction with post-16 and higher education.

There may not be many votes in establishing a sensible framework for assessing vocational and academic courses, but it is likely to be one of Mrs Shephard's priorities. The confidence she inspires within education is partly to do with a view that she is genuinely concerned about tackling difficult policy issues.

The Education and Employment Secretary has transformed relations between Government and the education professionals. In her early days, she secured an end to the teachers' boycott of national curriculum tests at a cost of Pounds 30 million. The Government agreed to pay to have the tests marked and to provide extra supply cover.

The local education authorities have been brought back in from the cold - their expertise is needed to intervene where inspectors identify major weaknesses in schools.

In small ways, schools have been reassured that she has no intention of carrying on the divisions generated by the creation of grant-maintained schools.

There have been no new financial incentives to opt out and Mrs Shephard has opened up the bidding for extra money for technology to all schools, not just the grant-maintained sector.

Her dedication to winning over a disillusioned profession extended to being the first Education Secretary ever to speak at almost all the teacher union conferences over Easter. (The National Union of Teachers didn't issue an invitation).

For a politician, she has few detractors, though the Right wing of the Conservative party believe she should have embraced vouchers for nursery education more fulsomely. During the leadership campaign, she was being promoted as a compromise candidate should there have been a battle between Mr Heseltine and Michael Portillo.

There is no doubt that Mrs Shephard's stock has risen during her months in education. However, there may be difficult times ahead. In public speeches she has raised expectations that education will be dealt with more generously. The teacher unions are unlikely to carry out threats to take action over large classes, but parents are not going to be happy with the situation.

The most powerful woman in British politics is up against the Treasury and the most abrasive man in British politics, Kenneth Clarke.

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