20th October 1995 at 01:00
The nation's admiration grows daily for Gillian Shephard. Somehow she manages to appear sensible and competent while being forced to support all sorts of loony ideas, the latest examples being "luncheon" vouchers for four-year-olds and state subsidies for prep schools (supposedly to help the poor).

The Education Secretary seems to have the priceless knack of seeming sweet and nice in public while behind the scenes she's evidently fighting like a fox in a chicken run to get what she wants.

Of late, as we know from a series of fortunate leaks to the newspapers, she's been fighting the cocks in the Cabinet (William Waldegrave makes an appropriate Treasury Chanticleer) to prevent a further disastrous round of school cuts from tarnishing her reputation as A Good Thing for Education. She's even taken a bite out of that unfortunate bantam, Home Secretary Michael Howard, having criticised his controversial plan to prosecute employers who take on illegal immigrants.

Is it any wonder that some people are beginning to see her as the one member of the Cabinet who has the guts to stand up for the One-Nation values her former colleague Alan Howarth says are being abandoned by the Tories?

Just this week she attended a function organised by the left-wing Conservative Education Association - a bastion of that dying breed, the local government Tory - apparently much to the dismay of the party apparatchiks at Central Office.

Not long ago, La Shephard was being touted as a possible compromise candidate to succeed her benefactor, John Major, having acquired just the right dash of Euro-scepticism to satisfy the Tory Right. But is she really a closet wet? My mole in her home county of Norfolk claims her support for the radical policies she is responsible for is all an act.

"She feels the same way about vouchers as she does about GM schools - she's anti," he says. Asked how she manages to defend them in public, my mole affably replies: "Oh, she could get an Equity card, could Gill."

Congratulations, posthumously, to Rudyard Kipling, whose poem "If" has been voted the nation's favourite. Doubtless headteachers up and down the country have been using the occasion to impress their flocks by quoting the Empire's most prominent bard in assemblies.

My correspondent, one A Wilson of Pucklechurch, Bristol, has gone one better by writing his own spoof: If you can stand before assembled hordesAnd talk about the weather, wet or dry, If you can make an art of looking boredAnd answer every question with a sigh . . .

It goes on: If you can machinate behind closed doorsActing for your own perverse rewardIf you can read two hundred dull reports . . .

After much more of the same, it concludes: If you can do all this and still do moreThen, my child, then you must be a head.

Naturally, Carborundum offers a right of reply - in verse, please -to any head who feels slandered.

Who says 35 is a large class? Not Sir Rhodes Boyson, former headmaster and education minister who was waxing nostalgic about his disciplinary triumphs last week on the train down from Blackpool.

As head of Highbury Grove, he regularly took a class of 270. No, the 0 is not a mistake: we are talking about the whole of the first year, assembled in the Great Hall while the head stood on the platform in his gown, teaching spelling.

This epic scene took place twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays. First Dr Boyson (as he then was) would read out the 20 words the boys had learnt from lasttime and they would write them down. Each word was repeated three times. Spelling monitors would collect the papers and bear them off to the sixth-form common room, where the sixth-formers would mark them. Then Dr Boyson would spell out, again three times each, 20 new words for next time.

And were the first years beaten if they got them wrong, asked Carborundum? Only if it was a bright boy who wasn't trying, he says; if the lad was struggling, he helped him to learn them. Which is what you might call tough but tender, firm but fair.

This technique, which he had perfected as head of Robert Montefiore School in the East End (alma mater of the Kray twins and not a gentle place) was, says Sir Rhodes, both valuable and fun. "The boys liked it, especially those who weren't very bright because it was something they could do." And he used it to demonstrate to staff what real discipline was: not a pin could drop unnoticed during the spelling sessions.

Even the Government's senior curriculum advisers appear to have an excessive workload - some of them may even be suffering from hallucinations. Recently a hard-pressed assistant chief executive turned up for a spot of Sunday overtime at the 10-storey Newcombe House, London HQ of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. He arrived to find a group of "happy clappy" worshippers at something called the Kensington Temple, trying to get into the building (they rent space on the top floor).

Later, at a SCAA management meeting, someone suggested Barbara Wintersgill, the authority's religious education officer, should be volunteered to infiltrate the Temple, on the grounds she would be able to bluff her way.

Quizzed as to the appearance of the congregation, the by now embarrassed assistant chief exec answered: "long-haired hippy types". And what were they wearing? "Oh, they weren't wearing anything," he replied, enigmatically.

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