The right-hand woman of education's right wingers

Lucy Hodges meets Dr Sheila Lawlor, think-tank guru and scourge of LEAs
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Standing on the bookcase in Sheila Lawlor's office is a framed copy of a letter from John Major. A thank-you note for the first publication to come out of Politeia, the Conservative Party think-tank set up by Dr Lawlor last year, it wishes her well in her endeavours.

That letter - as well as a framed cartoon of Dr Lawlor on a bike with Lord Parkinson and the Lord Privy Seal, Viscount Cranbourne - respectively treasurer and patron of her new outfit - testify to the influence and networking abilities of the Irish-born former Cambridge academic with the Edna O'Brien manner.

Drafted in to give sharp ideological direction to the 1987 Tory election campaign, she has remained on the political stage ever since as a scourge of the education establishment, flaying teacher training, local education authorities, the old Her Majesty's Inspectors of schools and all civil servants for being too progressive, too bureaucratic or too resistant to change.

Next week, she attempts to further consolidate her ascendancy with her first education conference on standards, which will be attended by Lord Skidelsky, Warwick University professor and biographer of Keynes, and Chris Woodhead, the controversial Chief Inspector of Schools, as well as a host of education experts from all shades of the political spectrum.

"She has had a profound and, in my view, damaging effect on the education system," says Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's chief education officer, who wrote the most recent Politeia pamphlet on education.

Needless to say, the right wing loves her. "In terms of making education policy work to improve standards in schools, she is one of the very big players," says Madsen Pirie, director of the Adam Smith Institute. Such observers may exaggerate the Sheila Lawlor effect, but there is no doubt she has one. And they all fall for her infamous charm and soft Irish voice.

School sixth-forms were her first crusade. Discovering on joining the Conservative research department that sixth-forms were fast disappearing around the country, the energetic Dr Lawlor set to work. The unpopularity of tertiary colleges became an election issue. There was also a big debate about schools opting out of local authority control.

When Sheila Lawlor moved to the Centre for Policy Studies, the Conservative think-tank where she rose to deputy director, she was convinced the power of local education authorities needed curbing. A series of pamphlets spewed forth, "Away with LEAs", followed by a publication advising schools about how they could opt out of local authority control and a third, "Common Core", which recommended a simple core curriculum. In other pamphlets, she attacked teacher training and Her Majesty's Inspectors.

In the late 1980s, a major battle developed between Number 10 and the Department for Education over the national curriculum and testing. Sheila Lawlor gave succour to Brian (now Lord) Griffiths, then head of the Number 10 policy unit, in his attempt to keep the curriculum simple. From the way she recalls those events, it is clear she saw herself as a guerrilla fighter holding firm to the original principle and intention of reform, and uncorrupted by the messy compromises into which politicians were forced. "These discussions and pamphlets and conferences aimed to show an alternative route to the reforms being pursued by official bodies," she says.

"Despite the best intentions of the Government - and I think the Conservatives have been very brave about taking on the educational establishment in the interests of parents, teachers and schools - you still see we're at a very halfway house. The balance now is very finely proportioned between those who will entrench the present position, which will mean going back to bureaucratic control, and those who want to go forward."

Married to a Cambridge don, Dr John Marenbon, with a six-year-old son, Maximus, Dr Lawlor is passionate about education vouchers. She believes they will set parents and schools free and push up standards, and she wants to see them in the next Conservative election manifesto. Many observers credit her with the nursery voucher scheme, although she says that it is too complicated.

At the heart of her ideas lies a desire for a smaller state. The state should fund education, she says, but otherwise keep out. It should not bother with the purposes of education nor with a detailed curriculum or pupil assessment. "We have a very intrusive assessment scheme," she says. "I think it's an unwarranted intrusion by the state into the classroom."

The issue of government intervention will be discussed at the conference next week. It could be a lively meeting because some of her critics will be present. Dr Lawlor's detractors may complain that she is an intellectual lightweight, unable to sustain a reasoned argument, prone to making sweeping assertions on the basis of very little knowledge and very few facts. But they are nevertheless prepared to turn up to debate the subject with her.