Is a brave face enough?

18th April 1997 at 01:00
Gillian Shephard's time at the Department for Education and Employment has honed her skills at presenting policy that has probably been foisted on her by the No 10 policy unit.

The manifesto has all the appearance of territory that has been fought over without any decisive victory, but with both camps managing to capture different sites. Mrs Shephard has taken the high ground on standards and central direction of schools. However, the right-wing theorists in Conservative Central Office and the policy unit have achieved their ambition of a commitment to making schools semi-independent. Another Tory term promises intensified competition between schools that will be given the freedom to contract or expand according to the market for pupils.

Radical changes that would require all schools to take over the employment of their teachers and have charge of the process for admitting pupils are set out in a single paragraph in the manifesto. In addition, schools that want it will be given ownership of land and buildings.

According to Mrs Shephard, the new powers would be given first to secondary schools and later to larger primaries. She brushes aside any consideration that all schools might not be grateful for such blessings.

What a future Tory government has in mind is that schools would become legal entities, a status allowing them to borrow against their assets. The benefits that stem from such changes, says Mrs Shephard, is that popular schools could fund their own expansion.

Reluctance to trumpet the new freedoms planned for schools to play the market suggests it is not a policy Mrs Shephard holds dear. The grant-maintained schools lobby has also felt aggrieved that the option to transfer all schools to Whitehall control has not been taken. However, the proposal to liberate all schools from local authority control still leaves them with a competitive edge. Grant-maintained schools will be able to select half their intake an the basis of academic ability; other schools will be limited to between 20 and 30 per cent.

As ever, she repeats that the policy is to have a grammar school in every major town, where parents want one. This is intended to come about without financial incentives to schools to convert, but there are financial gains for those choosing to be specialist centres.

"The intention is that one in five schools will be specialist centres by 2001. The number of grammar schools will depend a great deal on what local parents want. I am sure there will be substantially more grammars in four to five years' time," she says.

Local education authorities appear to be have been left stranded in the no-man's land between the two factions. Even Mrs Shephard finds it hard to sound convincing about how they can be expected to fulfill their responsibili ty to ensure every child has a school place, when schools have control of admissions.They will operate rather like the universities' clearing house for finding places for students, she says.

The right-wing have achieved their ambition of reducing the share of education spending over which local education authorities have any discretion. It was probably Mrs Shephard herself who promised to make them responsible for raising standards in schools.

It is clearly a welcome relief to Mrs Shephard to be out on the campaign trail. No one is asking awkward questions about education. "If you want to know, it's pensions and Europe," she says.

Norfolk has been besieged by parents wanting nursery places. Vouchers in her area have been an unqualified success. Parents are, she says, concerned that Labour's opposition could jeopardise prospects.

"I'm not saying everything is perfect, but there have been 800 new nursery places created in Norfolk," she says. She accepts that it would be wrong if nursery vouchers led to younger children being taught in overcrowded reception classes, but rejects any review of the scheme.

Left to herself, Mrs Shephard would probably prefer to concentrate on dealing with weaknesses in the system, rather than leaving schools to the vagaries of a market. There has never been a grand design that she wanted to execute and she is modest about what she has been able to achieve.

When pressed, she mentions nursery education; the stronger emphasis on vocational education; the stress on literacy and numeracy and the introduction of a qualification for heads.

However, she can put up a robust defence of manifesto commitments that may not have originated with her. The plan for even more league tables - the results of the seven and 14-year-old tests are to be published - will introduce greater transparency into the system.

The first primary school league table was "hugely popular", she says, and the DFEE could take credit for the fact that such a complex operation was managed so well.

Teachers, she suggests, have little to fear from plans to toughen up the appraisal system. The Teacher Training Agency is drafting criteria against which teachers can be judged, and that could be useful when procedures are invoked against incompetent staff.

Chief among her regrets is that teachers' morale remains low and she accepts that the Government must shoulder the blame. Belatedly, Conservatives have come round to the need for a general teaching council.

There are signs that Mrs Shephard may have fought a rearguard action against the right. Much of the manifesto concentrates on measures designed to improve standards in schools that are accepted across the party divide. The more radical plans to give schools control of their intake and allow them to finance their own expansion are not presented in any detail.

Even with a Conservative victory it is unlikely that Mrs Shephard will be implementing the changes. The skirmishes with the No 10 policy unit and, more latterly, Conservative central office, have too often left her to put on a brave face about events over which she has had little control.

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