Mrs Shephard should have gone on her Latin American mission, says John Howson
Adding the Employment brief to that of Education should have helped Gillian Shephard to understand the importance of education as an "invisible export". So it was unfortunate that the Secretary of State recently cancelled a visit to Argentina for the second time in the past six months.

Mrs Shephard was to have led an education training mission to Argentina and Brazil. The mission, the first from the newly merged department, was designed to promote British education systems and expertise in academic and vocational fields. Mrs Shephard had been expected to address a conference for Latin American bilingual schools and to meet government ministers, including the Argentine minister of education.

Instead of promoting Britain, Mrs Shephard had to attend the famous Chequers Cabinet meeting - with its attendant controversy about "leaks" and the Secretary of State's position on the level of spending on education. There must have been moments when she wished she were talking to teachers in Buenos Aires.

This saga of cancellations and missed opportunities raises the question of the role ministers can and should play in "batting for Britain". Of course the delegation to South America went ahead in the absence of the Secretary of State. Most of its members were drawn from the Department of Trade and Industry's education and training group, chaired by Baroness Perry.

Surely it is time to transfer the support for this group round the corner from the DTI to Sanctuary Buildings, where it can be seen to be of central importance to Gillian Shephard's department. Britain has much to offer in terms of its experience and expertise in education. Throughout the world, in countries at all stages of economic development, education reform is a prominent issue. Questions about school funding, devolution of control and the role of parents and students as consumers are on the agenda of many ministries and funding agencies such as the World Bank. British universities and colleges have conducted considerable research on these issues as well as areas such as school effectiveness, value added by institutions such as schools, and many other issues. This is why many education ministers have visited this country over the past three years. Mrs Shephard and her predecessor, John Patten, have entertained ministers from Brazil, Guyana, Singapore and the Soviet Union.

It would be a wasted opportunity if Mrs Shephard were to be prevented from travelling abroad to promote this interest in Britain because of political problems at home. It would be worse if an extended general election campaign stretching from the Chequers meeting until the spring of 1997 kept all cabinet ministers at home for the duration. Cabinet ministers play an important role selling their country abroad: they cannot simply be replaced by a junior minister or senior official. They have the ability to represent education at the highest level and to generate considerable goodwill towards Britain.

Education and education services are big business. In areas such as examination expertise, the production of textbooks, devolved management of schools and the provision of primary, secondary and tertiary education, Mrs Shephard must promote our expertise. Higher education has been a particular success story, ably assisted by the British Council and the DTI. Mrs Shephard should encourage her department to help the education community - especially higher education - to develop its strong reputation throughout the world. By doing so she can make a direct contribution to improving the balance of payments.

Muddled attacks at home on education, such as the annual ritual attempts to praise and condemn examination results, and a lack of time or willingness to promote British education overseas is not a sensible job creation programme for what is still seen in worldwide terms as a British asset. Mrs Shephard should take a leaf out of Japanese management textbooks: if public spending on education is to fall, her role is to support the education community in seeking new job opportunities, not to preside over an increase in unemployment.

The writer is senior lecturer at the School of Education, Oxford Brookes University.