18th April 1997 at 01:00
Thinking the unthinkable is the favourite pastime of education mandarins left running the nation's schools while their political masters and mistresses are fighting it out on the campaign trail.

And the favourite rumour sweeping Sanctuary Buildings sends shivers down the spines of all who hear it. Should the Tories defy all electoral precedent and sweep back into Downing Street, then Gillian Shephard is deemed ripe for reshuffle.

The man who has made it known he wants the keys to Sanctuary Buildings? Conservative party chairman Dr Brian Mawhinney, described by one commentator as having a rare talent for looming whilst sitting down.

Even for battle-hardened DFEE officials, this might prove a bridge too far. Privately, many opine on what a charmer the last boss John Patten was to work for, even though his public image of arrogance and insecurity made him a public relations nightmare. But Mawhinney, of whom officials in Northern Ireland would joke upon arrival "The ego has landed"?

"He was in foul odour here," confides Our Man in the Province. "He was pretty universally disliked. He wasn't just disliked by the Catholics: he united people across the religious divide."

Such a talented man should obviously not be lost to education, but there are several reasons why the rumours might have more than a grain of truth in them. For a start, there are the six years the Ulsterman spent doing Government business in the Six Counties, much of it concerned with schools.

He is credited with real achievements on integrated religious education, much of which has fallen into abeyance since he left. He is also credited with introducing published school reports, after carrying out a consultation in which almost everyone advised otherwise.

The apocryphal version of this tale is that Dr M failed to reach the bottom of the planned agenda during a meeting with a local headteacher, but asked what the final item was. The head replied that he thought it stupid that he could not show his school's inspection report to the governors, not even the chairman. "Never mind, I am going to take care of that," promised the good doctor. The following week, he announced plans to follow the mainland's lead in publishing the reports, to a cloud of opprobrium.

The other reason the rumours may be true is last summer's rumbling feud between Mawhinney and Shephard. He appears to have conducted something of a whispering war against her through the columns of the Daily Telegraph, on the grounds that she was insufficiently right-wing to put clear blue water between the Tories and Labour on education. It is now variously suggested that either this was the opening shots of a campaign to become the next Education and Employment secretary, or that his interest in the job was fired by the feeling that he could do it better.

But there could be one other explanation. Could it be that every department in Whitehall is enjoying the frisson of scaring itself silly over the prospect of an imminent Mawhinney takeover - on the grounds that the reality cannot possibly be worse? Just a thought.

Communication by grunt is definitely out at the Department for Education and Employment, where staff are suddenly taking a vigorous interest in matters elocutional.

Cups of coffee and photocopier paper are ordered in ringing tones. Regional accents are being tidied up. The loos are being used for emergency purgings of lingering regional accents. Gone are the glottal stops, whilst Estuary English has all but dried up. Belatedly, it seems, Gillian Shephard's Plain English crusade is taking root.

But as ever, things are not as they seem. Enlightened self-interest is the order of the day. The betting has been that a Labour victory is still on the cards and the most likely Secretary of State to stride through the infamous atrium on May 2 will be David Blunkett.

Mr Blunkett is blind. His preferred method of information gathering is not Braille, but voice recordings. It is widely anticipated that the interior of his Red Box would need to be grooved to contain neatly the sheer volume of briefing cassettes he would require every day.

Everything he needed to know, therefore, would have to be recorded within the building, thus putting a premium on the skills of officials with clear voices who read well and leave the correct gap on the tape for the Minister's response. All together now: "The rain in Spain I" Hard to believe, but some enterprising being is actually making money out of the national tests. Apparently advertisements have been appearing in a London publication suggesting that a lucrative career, which is open to all-comers, is to be had in marking the tests for a joining fee of just Pounds 6. It is believed that several fools and their money have already been parted in this way.

"You wouldn't think the tests could give rise to a scam, but the ingenuity of people knows no bounds," remarked a quangocrat in tones of admiration. For reference, genuine applications should be made to the local examinations board: recent teachers only need apply.

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