Now that the business of Government has been resumed, there is unexpectedly positive news for education, and for its Secretary of State. Gillian Shephard's takeover of the Employment Department is a considerable coup for her in the Cabinet power stakes, as well as bringing about an education training merger which has been endlessly urged by key players in the Civil Service, the Confederation of British Industry, the Opposition parties, and the Royal Society of Arts.
Although the idea of dividing up employment between the departments of education and industry has been kicking around Whitehall for so long, it had seemed that no Prime Minister was sufficiently interested in that sort of mega-reorganisation, and an ideal chance was missed when one of its main advocates, Sir Geoffrey Holland, moved as Permanent Secretary from Employment to Education. But now John Major has found an ideal way to reward Mrs Shephard, who has also served at the top of both departments, both for her success at the DFE and her strong personal support for him in the leadership battle.
In barely a year she has transformed the education scene with her common sense and common touch. The Patten nightmare had almost faded to a memory, until the imminence of Government changes reminded educationists that she might be moved on or up before her consolidation task was complete. In the event she has both stayed and moved up, with the bonus that her task is no longer just to keep the education world quiet until a general election, but to undertake the sort of major reform she really had her sights on.
Now that she is to preside over a Department of Education and Employment, so much else can fall into place in the unreconstructed post-l6 jungle. Sir Ron Dearing, in particular, can be expected to welcome the news, since it will certainly simplify the fiendishly difficult job his l6-plus review presents. With an interim review due by the end of this month, he has been seeking to reconcile into a common framework academic and vocational qualifications constructed in totally different ways, and overseen by different departments. Now two of the ministers concerned have departed - John Redwood from the Welsh Office and Michael Portillo from Employment - and Gillian Shephard rules.
And now a merger between the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, where Sir Ron is chairman, and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications could well be on the cards too, for Mrs Shephard has favoured the idea, and it could only help any future integration of qualifications into one l6 to l9 framework.
Meanwhile there are countless other ways in which a common education and training department can make sense of the relationships between colleges, Further Education Funding Council and training and enterprise councils, where at present there is overlap and confusion. The problems over the extension of training credits and the repercussions of the financial collapse of a TEC are just two recent examples. The departmental amalgamation may also speed the end of the ludicrous situation whereby entitlement to the job-seeker's allowance is in conflict with any attempt to upgrade educational qualifications.
Up to now, Gillian Shephard has been judged a success at education, without necessarily having the extra clout to get her way in Cabinet on issues like spending policy or even, perhaps, the nursery vouchers due to be announced as we went to press. Now we have the evidence that she is one of the winners in the Cabinet battle just ended, with the chance not only to make sweeping and essential reforms to bring education and training in harmony, but to make spending on both a priority too. That will require more than the charm, sympathy and deft footwork which have been her main weapons up to now, but her swift promise to end the departmental turf wars suggests she recognises the toughness that will be needed too.