Susan Young finds the Education Secretary wears as well as her Lycra high heels on the campaign trail
If politicians are to be believed, education is one of the most important issues of the 1997 general election campaign. Perhaps someone should tell the electorate.
The appearance of Gillian Shephard in three highly marginal Yorkshire constituencies on a sunny Saturday would, you might have assumed, attracted a few questions from concerned parents. Particularly since a neighbouring seat contains The Ridings, probably Britain's most notorious school. But no.
Apart from two organised meetings with the Asian community, in which education was the prime topic, the only spontaneous questions addressed to Mrs Shephard on the subject came from three headteachers in various degrees of disgruntlement.
One lady in a pink coat attached herself like a limpet to the minister during a walkabout of Brighouse town centre, had a short intense conversation, and slipped away refusing to give her name or school.
Moments later it was the turn of John Brooke, head of Lightcliffe CE Primary in Halifax - a grant-maintained school - who was upset about his funding being cut because the local authority slashed his budget.
And then there were the head and deputy of Greenhead School in Keighley, organisers of a highly successful study support group with the Asian Samgat community centre. Upon being introduced to Mrs Shephard, they took the opportunity to express how miffed they were to have been refused technology school status. Twice. Margaret Platts, deputy head, explained: "The local GM school became a sports college the first time round but we're now putting in our third application." Maybe next time, said Mrs Shephard, comfortingly adding that the whole thing had been terribly oversubscribed but a new Conservative government would earmark more money for the scheme.
But ordinary parents worried about the three Rs? No. Mrs Shephard was unsurprised. "On the stump it's rare for education to be asked about, and I've always found that in elections. What you are always asked about is the economy, law and order and, in this election, Europe." The education questions posed to Mrs Shephard in her own constituency of Norfolk have almost exclusively been about nursery vouchers, she said. "People are hugely anxious they will lose them."
The big new idea of locally-maintained schools - turning all state schools into separate legal entities - has yet to percolate into the electorate, she admits, although she maintains that grammar schools are popular with parents.
The day also demonstrated what an astute and good-humoured political operator Mrs Shephard is. The role of cabinet ministers with healthy majorities is not so much to drum up votes in marginals as to give moral support to beleaguered MPs, helping out as required.
Accordingly, Mrs Shephard's trot around the Aire Valley featured just one walkabout plus two private meetings with the Asian community, whose votes are crucial, particularly in the Batley and Spen and Keighley constituencies.
At Zakaria school, perched high on a hillside above Batley, Mrs Shephard's mission was to pacify and encourage the sizeable group of Muslim community leaders who want to know why it has not yet been allowed to opt into the state system. Local MP Elizabeth Peacock - a carefully coiffed blonde best known for defying her party on the closure of the coalmines and advocating the flogging of criminals on Lottery Live - has spent much time cultivating these constituents and to bring along the Secretary of State to listen to their grievances can only have been a vote-winner.
Particularly since Mrs Shephard, speaking in a shabby classroom flanked by vegetable samosas and luridly iced cakes, had a feel-good message for her overwhelmingly male audience (the handful of women in the room were either besuited members of the Tory retinue or Zakaria teachers).
"It's a slow process but the end can be in no doubt," she said, reassuring the school that all it had to do was fulfil the Government's criteria and that her civil servants would continue to give all the help they could. It would, she stressed, do Muslim schools no favours if it could be said that they had been accepted into the state system without reaching all the required standards, although Zakaria should be proud of the results it had achieved.
Her other call on the Asian community, to support Keighley MP Gary Waller, found her dwarfed in an enormous wing chair facing a community hall packed with at least 200 men and boys in their best clothes, listening with a commendably interested but occasionally wry expression to intermidable speeches in English and Urdu.
The message of the afternoon was the success of the Sangat centre, and Mrs Shephard was in exalted company, with guests including the Consul of Pakistan, the director general of the Kashmiri Liberation Cell, the Chief Imam and the Chairman of Keighley Business Forum. Eventually with minutes to go before departure she got her chance at the microphone, gave a cogent speech about education, opportunity and economics and answered a written question about nursery vouchers, slipping in a few plugs about the wisdom of voting for her colleague Mr Waller.
But then campaigning is a rum business, as Mrs Shephard's itinerary for the day proved. In Brighouse a Labour van with a loud speaker circled and activists handed out red balloons to all and sundry as local MP Sir Donald Thompson cheerfully hauled the Education Secretary around the shops, stopping to introduce her to a handful of largely ancient constituents. Whereupon they took trouble to tell her about the pressing issues of the day. "I've seen you on the telly," they said one after another.
The first children of the day were spotted in the market, clutching red balloons and looking transfixed with terror. "I don't like to see you with those. Can we give you a blue sticker to put on them?" said Mrs Shephard, severely, adding sotto voce "and with luck they'll pop".
Blue stickers were gathered from the battle tower and the retinue went its stately way, through a reproduction furniture store containing one first-time voter ("We'll send you some leaflets to help you decide") and a corner glass cabinet coveted by Mrs Shephard's political adviser.
Books were purchased from a Girl Guides' store (a Fay Weldon novel and an ancient housekeeping manual). And, perishing cold though it was, Mrs Shephard beamed for the cameras and gave interviews happily, huddled in a smart dark blue ensemble and a pair of high-heeled shoes. ("Only MS Lycra: they're very comfortable") she confessed later.
In Batley - where the retinue was only saved from horrible lateness by The TES car taking over the navigation - the first port of call was to present the trophy at a local flower shop. Curiously this turned out to be for the best Christmas window display. A luridly painted chair was also proffered for ministerial inspection: it is part of a scheme to provide somewhere to sit in every shop and will later be limited. "Seems a little unusual to have eggs painted on the seat," said Mrs Shephard cheerfully, before reverting to her usual enthusiastic and diplomatic utterances of "brilliant" and "marvellous".
The first bouquets of the day appeared, in yellows and creams and peaches. Diplomatically there was not a red rose to be seen in it, and those in the shop were hidden way above the minister's head, thus foiling any publicity slip-ups. Tory spin doctors have missed a trick with a spring campaign: blue flowers are few and far between in April although the next bouquet did feature a stem of campanula.
Charm offensive over for the day, Mrs Shephard was whisked home by helicopter, which is currently using her neighbour's field as a landing pad. "My husband told me this morning the helicopter had arrived and I hadn't heard it. He said he just knew it was there. It turned out the milkman had told him. The village is fascinated by the whole thing."
Although she has spent the campaign being whisked to marginals the length and breadth of Britain, busily "debunking myths" (largely to do with nursery vouchers) she still finds work to do in Norfolk despite it being a relatively safe seat. "I never think I've got a healthy majority. Most women are cautious in these matters," said Mrs Shephard. "Most people in the Cabinet are saying they don't understand how the opinion polls are saying what they are, because it doesn't seem to be in accord with what they are finding on the doorstep. "
Grand total of the day's work: no babies kissed and of the four children interviewed by the minister, two (with Labour balloons) were horrified, one ran away and the fourth had to be cajoled into presenting her with an enormous bunch of flowers. Three heads and a deputy listened to, key Asian voters made to feel that a Very Important Person had come to see them because of their local MP, two bunches of yellow flowers received and minor pleasantries exchanged with perhaps two dozen passers-by largely predisposed towards the Conservative cause. Cost to Mrs Shephard: 75p for two books from the Guides.
A typically Yorkshire verdict on the day's work came from Roderick Burtt, from the Conservative regional press office. "I don't think she's done any harm, and probably a great deal of good."