On the side of caution

5th April 1996 at 01:00
Gillian Shephard may be wooing the teachers' unions, but Biddy Passmore finds she'll need all her legendary competence to hold off the right-wing of her own side

Afew weeks ago, Michael Heseltine, who is tall, summoned Gillian Shephard, who is not. The Deputy Prime Minister wanted to quiz the Education and Employment Secretary about employment initiatives, perhaps adding a few wizard wheezes of his own. He had in mind a clubby chat in the depths of leather armchairs. Mrs Shephard was having none of that. Knowing that if she sat in an armchair her legs would dangle far short of the floor, she asked for an upright chair. Then she asked for a desk. Then she sat behind it and asked Mr Heseltine what it was that he wanted to know.

There is much of Mrs Shephard in this anecdote. The quick thinking, the school-mistressy quality, the refusal to be put at a disadvantage - especially by a man - perhaps a slight hint of self-mockery. Above all, toughness and competence. As the Prime Minister himself put it at last year's party conference in Blackpool: "Don't mess with Gill."

Mrs Shephard has needed all her toughness and competence in recent months. The reported tensions between her and Number 10 over vouchers appeared to have been forgotten when, last July, the Prime Minister expanded her empire to include employment. But barely was she installed as mistress of her newly-merged department than it all started happening again. A string of radical initiatives from Number 10 has forced her on the defensive. From a fast track to opting out for church schools to a plan for inner-city grammars funded by the private sector, she has been presented, often at very short notice, with policies not of her making.

Accompanying these reports of difficulties with Downing Street have been the stage whispers from the Right that Mrs Shephard is too cautious, too much in thrall to the educational establishment - in short, not sufficiently radical.

Yet through it all she has carried on smiling, immaculate, well-briefed and charming, a thoroughly professional politician. The Prime Minister's views have been warmly welcomed and she has quickly turned to making them her own, although sometimes with a different emphasis.

In private, however, she has seethed, especially at the role of the Number 10 Policy Unit. After the Prime Minister's speech to grant-maintained heads in Birmingham last year, she is said to have thrown a full-scale tantrum at the way she was being side-lined and to have warned that some of the ideas, notably a fast-track for church schools, would not work. (In the event, she put out a half-hearted consultation paper, the proposal was duly condemned by the churches and quietly dropped.)

And now the pressure is on again, as her announcement last week of a White Paper in June made clear. While the broad themes of the White Paper - to extend local management of schools, give GM schools more freedom and increase the ability of all schools to select - have been agreed, there is a deal of negotiating still to be done about detailed proposals.

This must be the first time in her life that Mrs Shephard has ever faced such continuous pressure to do more. For this energetic and popular woman has a curriculum vitae daunting in its relentless movement onwards and upwards.

Born Gillian Watts 56 years ago in rural Norfolk, the daughter of a cattle-dealer and smallholder, she remembers a "terrifically active and very hard-working" childhood in which she "enormously enjoyed" everything she did: school, sport (especially tennis and hockey), music and drama. The star pupil at her grammar school - North Walsham Girls' High - she won a scholarship to St Hilda's College, Oxford, where she studied French and German.

Tennis and hockey have now given way to swimming and walking but Mrs Shephard remains a countrywoman, spending every weekend in the rural Norfolk constituency she represents and always consciousf the rural dimension to every issue. In discussions on parental choice, she is apt to point out that, in the country, there is often no choice.

After Oxford, Gillian Watts taught at Bedford High, a girls' independent school, before entering educational administration in Norfolk, where she soon became senior inspector in charge of the educational advisory team. In 1975, when she was 35, she married Tom Shephard, a headmaster and widower with two sons who later went on to run the county's local management initiative. Characteristically, she gave up work and threw herself into being a mother. She was undoubtedly competent at that too and is said to inspire great devotion in her two stepsons.

She didn't really give up work, either. There was some lecturing for the Cambridge University Extra-Mural Board and a stint with Anglia Television. Then, in 1977, she was elected to Norfolk County Council, where she quickly progressed to chairman of social services and deputy leader. She became chairman of education in 1983, only to resign in May 1985 because of the widespread industrial action by teachers at a time when her husband was head of Sprowston High School. A month later she was appointed chairman of Norwich Health Authority.

Where else was there to go but Westminster? And off she duly went, in 1987, elected as member for South West Norfolk. Five years later, she entered the Cabinet as Employment Secretary. After a brief spell at Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, she was moved to Education.

When her old friend the Prime Minister offered her the job of Education Secretary in the summer of 1994, the Conservatives were in deep educational trouble. For years, a series of Education Secretaries had failed to get to grips with essential areas of policy, notably the national curriculum and its associated testing regime, culminating in the disastrous stewardship of John Patten. Her task, John Major made plain, was to calm things down.

In this she has been extremely successful. Leaders of six teaching unions were summoned and charmed in the first week of her reign. A threatened testing boycott by the National Union of Teachers was bought off at a cost of Pounds 30 million to bring in outside examiners. Few teachers would deny that the atmosphere in classrooms and staffrooms is now better than it was.

As a sign of how relations have improved, she addresses the NUT's Easter conference tomorrow, the first Conservative Education Secretary to do so since Mark Carlisle was booed off the stage in 1980. (Indeed, she is addressing the NASUWT and the Secondary Heads Association as well, making the Association of Teachers and Lecturers feel rather left out of things.) Leaders of local government, too, are happy to be on friendly speaking terms with an Education Secretary who plainly knows her onions and, being familiar with their world, does not think they have horns. Her record has even led some to compare her to the all-time greats. Demitri Coryton, who chairs the moderate Conservative Education Association, says she is "better informed than any since Edward Boyle and the most effective since Butler".

But the Right complain that calming things down does not constitute a policy. "Think of the number of reviews set up," said one mournfully, "and the number of actual decisions taken." To this wing of the party, and to the Prime Minister and his advisers at Number 10, Mrs Shephard has embraced the calming-down agenda too wholeheartedly.

By nature, John Major is no more of a right-wing ideologue than his Education Secretary; indeed, on most issues there would be little to distinguish their views. But he combines a strong interest in education with a deep distrust of the "educational establishment" that he seems to have inherited from Margaret Thatcher. And he has in his Policy Unit two advisers - Norman Blackwell, the head, and Dominic Morris, his deputy - with pronounced right-wing views on

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