Book of the Week

11th August 2000 at 01:00
SHEPHARD'S WATCH: ILLUSIONS OF POWER IN BRITISH POLITICS. By Gillian Shephard. Politico's Publishing pound;20

Gillian Shephard started with one huge advantage when she was made Education Secretary in 1994. She was not John Patten. The wave of relief that swept over the education world at the departure of a man who avoided any contacts that might be seen as going native gave her an extended honeymoon.

She started talking to the teacher unions again. She brought The TES and other subversive educational organisations in from the cold. Where her predecessor seemed shut away in a glass bubble in outer space, she was lively, warm and approachable. It may be, though, that she did not take to educationists quite as much as they took to her.

Her book certainly has less to say about her time at the Department for Education than about her other senior government posts, and she is particularly cool about its civil servants, and their slowness to adopt a hands-on approach. While their counterparts at Agriculture and Employment were used to running things directly, the tradition at Education was one of powerlessness, "given that local education authorities ran schools and universities ran themselves".

Though Conservative education reforms were changing all that, "they did not equip the department with either the skills or the power for the more centralised running of education they presupposed." John Patten, she loyally claims, was in fact the fall guy for Whitehall's failure to adapt to the change of culture.

She may have a point there, though not the whole picture. As illustration she contrasts the performance of Sir Geoffrey Holland, permanent secretary at the Department of Employment at the time of a mines crisis, with that of her officials at Education over the introduction of nursery vouchers. Within a few hours of a Cabinet decision on mines closures and compensating training programmes, the admirable Sir Geoffrey and his team had drawn up the necessary schemes.

But when the nursery voucher pilots were introduced in 1996, education department officials were "simply not equipped with the mechanisms or knowledge to get the work under way". Worse, they seemed ignorant of local authority procedures, though they had been working with them for a century. "What do they mean, the committee cycle?" asked one hapless official. It got worse when she checked out the helpline installed to provide easy information for the public, and found a recorded message promising that someone would ring back. No one did.

The missing ingredient in this story is that Sir Geoffrey Holland, with whom Gillian Shephard had so enjoyed working at Employment, had moved to become permanent secretary at Education under John Patten - a pot he left somewhat abruptly shortly before Patten's own departure. Evidently he had not managed to embed the necessary culture-change in education officials. And it must have been a source of regret that they missed the chance to work together again at the newly merged Department for Education and Employment, an amalgamation that he had long advocated.

It is one of the disappointments of the book that Gillian Shephard has virtually nothing to say about this major Whitehall shake-up, or why John Major finally decided on it when he appointed her, although she devotes a whole section to the obstacles to working across departments (mostly civil servants).

What she does tell us about is her hard time at a National Union of Teachers conference (talking to them is one thing, ending "Tory cuts" quite another), and her even harder time trying to persuade the Treasury to do something about the cuts. "I had had great difficulty persuading the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Jonathan Aitken, of the political importance of backing the Prime Minister's enthusiasm for education with realistic spending." (I can vouch for this, since a copy of an eloquent memo on those lines arrived in The TES office at the time in a plain brown envelope.) She fought the case vigorously through Cabinet committees with the backing of Environment Minister John Gummer, who knew all about the restive Tory shire councillors, but finally lost out in Cabinet to the implacable opposition of the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke who, perhaps scarred by his time at Education, "was quite incapable of discussing local government rationally". It was a salutary lesson in where power lay, the underlying theme of Mrs Shephard's book.

She first became hooked on the idea of power at the age of five, by the 1945 general election (and a photograph taken then shows her characteristically bright and alert). She pursued it herself as a local councillor, then as an MP, rising rapidly through junior government ranks after her election in 1987 to enter John Major's Cabinet in 1992.

Her account explores all the power points inside government - the mandarins, Cabinet committees and Parliament itself - using her own sharply-told ministerial experience as frustratingly rare illustration. She doesn't mention Ofsted as a powerbase. What about her own battles with Chris Woodhead?

In the end she concludes, like Aneurin Bevan ("So I worked very hard again and got there, and it had gone from there too") that power has always slipped away one step ahead of you. It should all make valuable material for citizenship students, but we could still do with more revelations about power struggles at the DFEE.

Patricia Rowan was editor of The TES from 1989 to 1997

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