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Theresa May could walk down Oxford Street without being recognised...

So, as the Tories head for Bournemouth, how does their education spokeswoman plan to make her mark?

Theresa May hares along Holland Park Road to the Tube. She got involved in talking to sixth-formers on a school visit and now she's late for an Excellence in Cities lunch. Immaculate in clicking heels, pearls at her neck and ears, the shadow education secretary is not too posh to run for a train. Anyway, nobody recognises her as she disappears underground.

As the Conservatives pack their conference bags for Bournemouth, Theresa May has the job of promoting Tory education policy. Policies are still a novelty in the party, which has taken time to get back to its feet after the knock-out punch of the 1997 election. But Mrs May, who replaced David Willetts as education spokesperson in June 1999 after serving a year as his number two, has been energetic in the "Listening to Britain" exercise that the Tories undertook as their penance.

She has visited scores of schools, she says. Do teachers want to talk to her? "They're very pleased to see a politician," she insists. "There's an underlying feeling that it's good for politicians to get out and see what's happening on the ground."

She is certainly made more than welcome on a visit to Cardinal Vaughan memorial school, a voluntary-aided, ex grant-maintained Catholic secondary school in the royal borough of Kensington, where the Queen and the Pope vie for space on the office walls. Headteacher Michael Gormally brings out the flowered coffee cups and matching milk jug and makes clear with his denunciation of the "dead hand of municipal socialism" that here she is among political friends. "I would like to get all the budget back to you, not just these little bits," she says. But they seem to be talking at cross purposes; Mr Gormally is complaining of "suddenly getting all this money thrown at us" - by the Government. He also admits to a good relationship with the local authority.

And here lies one of Theresa May's difficulties. In the great jumble sale of education policy that has taken place over recent years, Labour has nabbed all the attractive garments. Devolved spending for schools, more foundation schools and specialist colleges, involvement of private business, strategies for literacy and numeracy, the national curriculum; the Government took the lot and parades its new clothes shamelessly. The Tories have been left rooting around on the floor, sorting hopefully through the rather outlandish and shabby leftovers.

Theresa May's appointment to the shadow post was greeted with a muted fanfare. Despite her coolish, lowish profile, journalists wrote about her as a possible future party leader, as just the kind of young (she's 44 in October), charismatic and intelligent woman the Tories desperately needed.

She became an MP in the 1997 election, after beating older, established men of the party such as Sir George Young, Sir Paul Beresford and Eric Forth to the nomination for the newly created, safe seat of Maidenhead in Berkshire - which she won with a 12,000 majority. (She says she has always been happy to compete professionally with men, and derides all-female shortlists as "an insult to women".) Now, despite being one of only 14 Tory women in the House of Commons (and the first of those women newly elected in 1997 to reach the Opposition front bench), Theresa May brushes aside the idea of political mentors. "I don't look to people as role models. You just have to be yourself."

But who is Theresa May? Even close up it is difficult to tell. Her CV - she lists her interests as cricket and cooking, and her marriage for 20 years to Philip May, an investment banker - gives little away.

The daughter of an Oxfordshire vicar, she was convent-educated, at St Juliana's in Oxfordshire, but took her A-levels at an Oxford comprehensive, Wheatley Park. She became interested in politics while still at school - "although I can't claim to have read Hansard under the bedclothes" - and joined the Tories as a teenager, her involvement fostered, she says, by a "streak of public service" in her family. By 17, she was stuffing envelopes for the local Conservative Association, although her father wouldn't let her put up posters in the vicarage windows. She also stood as the Tory candidate in her school's 1974 mock general election. After school came an MA in geography from St Hugh's College, Oxford, a City banking career, and, from 1986, a 12-year stint as a Conservative councillor in the London borough of Merton, two of them as chair of education.

She's pleasant and authoritative in a head-girlish kind of way, the kind of head girl teachers would describe as popular but who wouldn't have a best friend, you feel. She is reserved, she agrees. "As an only child, you learn to be that, I suppose." Is it, as her supportive colleague, the former education secretary Gillian Shephard, believes, an advantage to be "rather a cool girl"? She says: "I think it has pros and cons. When people are looking for more personality-based politics, it makes it more difficult. I don't brood on it."

Personality aside, Mrs May's diligent approach - backed by her experience on the education committee at Merton - has won respect. People who have worked with her describe her as capable, straight and willing to listen. "She knows what's happening," says John Dunford of the Secondary Heads Association. "I've never found myself in a position where I've had to explain things to her. And she's been very willing to take up causes that we've been talking to her about."

The shadow education job - with its huge and weighty brief and slender resources - is considered difficult for whoever fills it; Theresa May has just one secretary, two research assistants and a press officer. "It's not the same as having an entire department of civil servants," she says, unnecessarily. "The hardest thing is making sure one's keeping up with what's happening, talking to people at the sharp end."

Aspects of the new Tory programme suggest that the Opposition has indeed been listening to teachers and their representatives. The "free schools" policy aims a few sharp stones at the soft underbelly of current education drives, picking up on headteachers' unhappiness with the anti-exclusion climate and the bureaucracy fatigue that pervades the profession. A Tory government would abolish exclusion targets, along with "bureaucratic targets and much form-filling", a promise to gladden teacher hearts.

But other aspects of the policy are causing alarm. "Free schools" would be cut loose from local authorities and left to determine their own pay structure, admissions policy and exclusion rules. "Heads and governors will have complete responsibility for managing their schools," proclaims the pre-manifesto.

These proposals are raising eyebrows even on the right. "Our view is that there's definitely a future for certain functions of the local education authority," says Sir Cyril Taylor, chair of the Technology Colleges Trust. "Numbers of places, special needs, transport, some sort of umpiring role in admissions - you can't just disappear them." The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers has campaigned for the right of teachers to refuse to teach the most unruly pupils, but its general secretary, Nigel de Gruchy, describes free schools as a "fantasy policy". He has said: "We like the freedom on exclusions, but it's not realistic unless you have healthy local education authorities making alternative provision."

Questions are being asked about whether Theresa May is really behind these populist glad-rags of policy pronouncement. "They're putting forward a revolutionary set of proposals which go too far even for many ex grant-maintained heads," says David Hart of the National Association of Head Teachers. "Theresa May seems to feel she has to advance a radical set of policies which I'm not certain she entirely believes in."

"I believe strongly in the free school policy," counters Mrs May, "precisely because of my experience at Merton. What I saw was the way money could be tied up in bureaucracy instead of going direct to schools, and the difficulties of working against a culture which still values people according to the size of their empire."

The Daily Telegraph claimsMrs May has become increasingly euro-sceptic and partisan, in tune with the Tory front bench, despite her uncertain initial leanings (summed up in the quip, "Theresa May, but then again she may not"). But she resists pigeon-holing. "Politics is more complex than that," she says. "The division isn't between left and right but between those who believe in telling people what to do and those who believe in giving people the freedom to be in control of their own lives."

Still, it was William Hague not Theresa May who outlined the free schools policy, in a speech to the right-wing think-tank, Politeia, last July. So does she do the education legwork while Mr Hague courts votes with Far Side policy proposals? No, she says. "That William makes major speeches about it shows that the party is serious about education."

Earlier this month Mrs May came out in support of Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, when he argued publicly that A-level standards had fallen and that failure was not a bad lesson to learn. Teachers and union leaders were furious at the slur on young people's hard-won achievements, but Mrs May welcomed his intervention, saying she had already called for a review "to maintain standards". She added: "Now that the education expert Mr Woodhead has spoken, perhaps the Government will listen to our concerns."

Now she counters with: "I'm not trying to say there is a problem with teaching or the quality of young people's achievement. But I think we need a review of standards in A-levels and GCSEs." She is responding, she says, to what she has been told on the ground - by university lecturers complaining about the quality of their student intakes, and teachers saying that GCSE coursework favours girls. "I don't want to alienate teachers, but we need to look at whether we have the right balance between testing skills and testing knowledge."

Is she a supporter of Chris Woodhead? She thinks he has "a difficult job" which he's "done well" but criticises what she sees as a lack of consistency in inspections.

Surprisingly, she has an almost liberal attitude to examinations. "We see education as being important in developing the whole individual, developing good citizens," she says. "With this government, there is a drive towards having what nominally looks like a well-educated population - lots of people in higher education, lots of people with qualifications - but the target there is the qualifications, whereas my target is actually the education. And that those people have benefited from the education."

She does believe, however, in "differentiation", something she says New Labour is obliterating. "Of course there are basics that everyone needs," she says. "But beyond that I think we're in great danger of forcing some children and young people into a route that doesn't meet their abilities, their interests, or their inclinations. We have to look at greater flexibility in the curriculum in secondary schools." She says this would help to reduce disaffection and exclusions.

Sixteen months after her promotion, Theresa May has been tipped in the media as a possible reshuffle victim and slated as irrelevant to the free schools policy. So is she still "architect and driver" of the ideas? "My reaction to that is a sort of female thing," she says. "Yes, if you like, I am the driver of that policy and have been one of the architects of it. But I prefer to think of it as a team effort."

It may be a sort of female thing, too, that she has been set up and knocked down not just by the media but by her own party, says Gillian Shephard. "I think she's outstanding," she says. "Very bright but also working all the hours God gives. Quite often one goes without the other." It's not a view shared by another Commons colleague, John Redwood, who, according to the Spectator magazine, spent this summer collecting May's "fatuous" press releases for their amusement value. Does that hurt? "In politics, you have to get used to a lot," says Mrs May, with her usual restraint. "Life would be a little more pleasant without these stories."

Gillian Shephard, who knows a thing or two about sexism in politics, says Mrs May's peers in the party have been briefing against her. "I think she's been the subject of jealousy on the part of males whose abilities, in their own estimation, go unrecognised. It's anti-women briefing on the part of inadequate little men, and if she is wise she will ignore it completely. She's a long-term player and showed talent from very early on. I think she'll run and run."

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