8th September 1995 at 01:00
No sooner do the Christian traditionalists lose one well-placed ally in Baroness Blatch, now departed to the Home Office, than up pops another.

Anthony Coombs, MP for Wyre Forest in Worcestershire, occasional preacher and a staunch opponent of multi-faith mishmash, has just been appointed as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Gillian Shephard.

"Oh no, that's bad news. Just when things were going so well," said one very senior and very aghast proponent of multi-faith study.

Mr Coombs, who is due to give a sermon on "Religion and Politics" this weekend, is vigorously Christian. He deplores "the spiritual desert that too many of our schools have become" and "the kind of relative comparative religion shading into blatant secularism" that he holds partly to blame. He is particularly prone to say these things in the pages of the Sunday Telegraph, where traditionalists of all persuasions get a fair crack of the whip.

The snappily-dressed Mr Coombs teamed up with Church Commissioner Michael Alison MP and Baroness Cox during the passage of the 1988 Education Reform Act. Their aim, largely successful, was to secure a healthy Christian component in collective worship and religious education. He has been quoted on the subject ever since.

Those fearing a resurgence of Baroness-Cox-style attacks on RE teachers should bear a few points in mind, however. PPS appointments are as much a party matter as a personal one. Ministers choose the successful candidates from a list of names provided by the whips. Mr Coombs's credentials as a party loyalist are, then, likely to have played more part than his religious views. Much of his job will involve liaising with the back benches where he is well-liked, despite his improbably 1970s hair-do.

He is also eminently suitable in other respects, has a long-standing interest in education, played a leading role in Birmingham education authority in the mid-1980s, and is now the vice-chair of the Conservative back-bench education committee.

He is a personal friend of Gillian Shephard and has already been a PPS, spending three years with the former Minister for Fun, David Mellor. This is unconnected with his role as consultant to the National Bed Federation which is, he said, "an excellent organisation. Everything from Slumberland to Silent Night".

His views on religious education are in fact less extreme than his views on police murderers, whom he would like to hang. While heartily in favour of Christianity predominating, he approves of the multi-faith model syllabuses drawn up by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.

He also has disappointingly uncontentious views on the grant-maintained sector - this despite his oft-stated enthusiasm for opt-outs: "I've got nothing ideologically against LEAs," he smoothed. "I understand many of the pressures on councillors. I happen to believe that some LEAs ought to be giving more of their powers to schools."

And as for strengthening the cause, he steered well clear of the desperate measures propounded elsewhere. "Ultimately it's got to be a success-breeds-success syndrome. We have got to be persuading more people of the benefits of the GM system." He is suspicious of "rising" standards in exams; allin favour of traditional teaching methods.

Nor is the MP for Wyre Forest (which amounts to Kidderminster, Stourport and Bewdley, majority 10,341) quite the fire-and-brimstone Puritan one might imagine.

Married to a former model, he voted for the partial de-regulation of Sunday trading and, notably, helped bring about the legalisation of Sunday dancing. No mug when it comes to political etiquette, he summed up with the following sharp analysis: "The only reason I'm prepared to take the job on is because of my admiration for Gillian Shephard. I think she's a very high-quality Secretary of State who has done a first-class job." Clearly a wise appointment.

Well known for their love of foreign languages, the French are taking a very stern line with the British education system. "If French is your teachers (sic) second language you'll get second rate French," says a rather disturbing advert in a national newspaper.

It was placed by the Alliance Francaise, an organisation offering multifarious courses in the lingo and claiming to be "sponsored by the French Government". It is not yet known if the diplomatic initiative extends to tackling second-rate English.

Revolting but possibly crucial tips on "Spotting a Spit Tobacco User" from the National Association of Secondary School Principals in the United States, which reports that the use of chewing or "spit" tobacco is reaching epidemic proportions.

"Students with yellowing teeth and consistently bad breath may use spit tobacco; some even carry a cup to hold the spit," says the NASSP's guide. "One of the most reliable signs is a circular impression on a back pocket of blue jeans - almost invariably from a spit tobacco tin."

You have been warned.

Cheryl Gillan is off to China. The newly appointed junior minister at the Department for Education and Employment has been asked to attend the United Nations Women's Conference in Beijing.

This event is causing no end of headaches for its not-so-revolutionary hosts. But they can expect little in the way of trouble from Mrs Gillan who, in addition to her responsibilities for school meals and the Assisted Places Scheme, is also Minister for Women. "Spelt W-O-M-E-N", she stresses to Carborundum.

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