Major buries hatchet but wields a birch

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The Independent Online
It was a very public display of unity. "Can you stand together please?" the photographers asked the Prime Minister and his Education Secretary. "That's where you'll always find us," was John Major's swift reply.

On a long-planned visit to a grant-maintained school in west London yesterday, Mr Major and Gillian Shephard were determined to put their rift over caning behind them. They arrived together, sat side by side for a performance by the school choir and orchestra and she beamed as he planted a tree to mark the occasion. No one mentioned that it was a birch.

When Mr Major dived into the school kitchens to chat to the cooks, he even grabbed the opportunity for a reconciliatory gift. "Apple for teacher," he said, handing the fruit to Mrs Shephard. She smiled.

The visit to the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in Kensington, one of the capital's top grant-maintained schools, was timed to mark yesterday's launch of the Education Bill.

In jovial mood, the Prime Minister swept through the 715-pupil Roman Catholic school, chatting to the head, Tony Pellegrini, laughing with the boys and chiding the press.

Touring the school library where he was shown a copy of Graham Swift's Booker prize-winning novel Last Orders, Mr Major turned to pupils and said: "I think the media should win the Booker Prize for Fiction - and wouldn't it be nice if they quoted me properly for once?"

Outside, pupils gathered in the playground and swamped the Prime Minister as soon as he arrived, forcing Mrs Shephard from his side for the first time of the day. He joked about football, signed autographs and shook dozens of hands, while just one dissenting voice shouted: "I'm going to vote Labour."

Canon Adrian Arrowsmith, chairman of the board of governors, was fully behind Mr Major's line on caning. "You can't beat anything into anybody," he said. "It's got to be done by example and by observing the Ten Commandments."

Many of the boys agreed. John Strongitharn, 13, said: "When I'm 18, I won't vote for a party which wants to bring back caning." And Allessandro Longo, 12, said: "I don't believe in caning." Stefan Schrijnan, 12, thought discipline at the school was good and "not too harsh". But he added: "I think we are quite lucky here - friends who go to other schools say there is lots of trouble there." Only a handful were caning supporters. "It brings back discipline," said one would-be Tory backbencher.

Mr Pellegrini said they had managed perfectly well without the cane for the last 10 years. "It is now a museum piece, locked away in my cupboard." He did not think it would have been wise to take it out for the visit although "it did occur to me to go round swishing it", he added mischievously.