An in-tray full of other people's agendas

Geraldine Hackett

Gillian Shephard's smile looks a little pinched these days. Geraldine Hackett talked to an Education Secretary with problems.

The troubles of Gillian Shephard are not really of her making. The Cabinet chose to risk the wrath of parents and governors with a public-spending settlement that did not cover the cost of the teachers' pay rise. The clamour for vouchers from the Right dominates debate on possible options for expanding nursery education.

Events have taken the edge off Mrs Shephard's usual unflagging cheerfulness. Until recently, the Education Secretary had only been marking up successes. A deal had been struck with teachers that means the first national tests for 11-year-olds are likely to take place next month. The National Union of Teachers was persuaded to abandon its boycott of all the national curriculum tests.

By comparison with her predecessor, John Patten, she is deemed to have the interests of the system at heart and not given to strange public outbursts. Political columnists tip her as prime ministerial material.

Mrs Shephard has done her best to be sympathetic about the problems schools face. Everyone knows the spending settlement wasn't her idea. She has not broken with the convention of collective responsibility, but her warning to Cabinet found its way into the papers via a leaked private letter.

As for what will happen next year - in theory another round of cuts as the Government attempts to further reduce public spending - Mrs Shephard insists that it is far too early to have any clue.

Of course she had read the newspaper reports that she had managed to get John Major to tell his truculent Chancellor to put Pounds 1 billion extra aside for education for this November. It is a mystery, she says, how these things get into print.

The source clearly wasn't Kenneth Clarke, who is reportedly particularly annoyed to see such a prediction and continues to berate the local authorities for encouraging all the fuss.

Mrs Shephard is an innocent in all this. She produces a copy of the Prime Minister's speech to the Conservative Central Council last Saturday and points out that he promises that education will be at the top of the Government's priorities as the economy delivers further growth.

"I find that very heartening," she says. That, however, she claims is all she has to go on with regard to next year's budget. "The process hasn't started. I simply don't know," she says. Neither can she say whether full account will be taken in future of pay rises.

The problem with reading very much into Major's speech is that he also says in an earlier passage that the party is committed to cutting rates of income tax.

Privately, Mrs Shephard may be calculating that the massed ranks of protesters will have brought home to the Cabinet that parents now blame the Government and not local education authorities for cutting schools' money.

The other pressure on Mr Clarke this autumn is finding money to pay for more nursery education places. Mrs Shephard, as ever, declines to give even ballpark figures. There will be new money - but who knows how much. It is not possible to give any indication of how many children are to be accommodated. She proffers the well-worn statistic that 96 per cent of four-year-olds are catered for in some sort of pre-school service. Even so, there are areas where nursery education has barely a foothold. (Her home county of Norfolk, for example, and other predominantly Conservative voting shires).

The nursery education issue seems to have become disagreeably politically charged with the intervention of the voucher lobby. Mrs Shephard denies there could possibly be a difference in view between her department and Number 10, but if that's the case, why is she being so coy about what she might have in mind?

"It's hugely complicated," she chides. Again, she can demonstrate Mr Major is on board, if not unequivocally committed. The Prime Minister was recently quoted as saying he saw the attractions of vouchers, but such a scheme might take longer to implement than other options.

She is diplomatic about the latest recruit to the Number 10 policy unit - David Soskin, founder of one of Britain's largest chain of private nurseries and author of a pamphlet produced by the right-wing Adam Smith Institute in which he argued all nursery education should be run by the private sector. "His appointment will be helpful," she says.

Mrs Shephard is not blind to the virtues of vouchers - spending power in the hands of parents; greater choice and the development of a market. The policy, though, has not yet been decided, and vouchers are not the favoured option, she says.

The Government is not about to put the private sector or the voluntary groups out of business, she says. On the other hand, her instinct is to produce a scheme that offers a realistic programme of activities for that age group. It might consist of a week of half days. There is advice that reception classes in schools - a relatively cheap way of increasing the number of places - may not be ideal.

The department's nursery task force has sifted the range of possibilities and we are all to be told "very soon". That means when the Treasury has agreed to stump up the money.

The Government would have tighter control on quality if it went for a bidding system. Decisions on the dispersal of funds could be taken by the Department for Education, an agency or even, perish the thought, local authorities.

As things are, there may not need to be legislation to bring in the nursery education proposals, but any full-blown voucher scheme would require changes in the law.

Nursery education aside, Mrs Shephard has no grand designs in mind. There are no plans for incentives to revive interest in schools going grant-maintained. She is convinced, she says that GM status is the best way to manage a school, but it is down to parents. There are few ballots, but lots of interest, she says. There will be a Bill allowing GM schools to borrow from banks on the strength of the value of their buildings.

The nettle of the vast differences in spending per pupil across the country is not about to be grasped. The problem with introducing a national funding formula, she says, is that there are as many losers as winners.

However, within the DFE, work is being done on ways to intervene directly in schools that are doing badly, but are not in the desperate state that merit the emergency measures taken when schools are found to be failing. The schools can be identified from inspection reports, she says.

Mrs Shephard, a former school inspector, believes inspection is extremely important in raising standards. So far, 38 schools have been judged to be failing - four in Mrs Shephard's constituency - with another 10 in the pipeline.

She has yet to use her powers to either close a school or send in an education association to run one that is failing. There are some schools that have been on the failing list for more than a year, but Mrs Shephard insists the circumstances which would require her to use her powers have not occurred. "I would be absolutely unhesitating," she says.

During her tenure, the rhetoric of a market in education has been toned down. The purpose of exam league tables, in Mrs Shephard's view, is to make schools accountable. Coupled with inspection reports, the whole system has become more transparent, she says.

If only she could be left to her own devices, she implies, then everything would be fine. She claims no over-arching ambition, other than to be considered to be doing a reasonable job in good faith.

That doesn't mean she is above the political in-fighting and place-jostling that goes on in Government. She is just careful to remove the fingerprints.

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Geraldine Hackett

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