The Government is expected to unveil plans to increase selection in schools in a White Paper to be published at the end of the month, and John Major wants to see the issue of selective education at the forefront of the next election campaign.
But Mrs Shephard, who has always been less keen, refused fully to endorse Mr Major's ambition to see a grammar school in every town. "The proposals in the White Paper may very well result in just that," she told GMTV. She said the Government meant to make it "very much easier" for there to be selective schools - but added "where parents and teachers and governors want it".
Past experience has shown that, despite the superficial popularity of the idea of grammar schools, when parents are presented with a specific plan to introduce selection they reject it, as in Tory-controlled Solihull in the mid-1980s.
David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, sought to draw attention to the drawbacks of selection for the majority whose children would fail entrance exams. "We're not in favour of saying to local people: `You can't send your child to your neighbourhood secondary school because pupils have been brought in from outside who have passed the exam'," he said on BBC radio.
Mrs Shephard's comments will infuriate some of the Prime Minister's advisers and Tory party policy chiefs who are convinced that greater selection is a vote-winner.
The White Paper is expected to propose that ministers have the power to order local councils to set up new grammar schools - with the consent of parents and teachers.
Ministers are debating how the law could be changed to allow the Secretary of State for Education to impose grammar schools on local councils wherever a new school is proposed. The proposals would also give grant-maintained schools the right to select 50 per cent of pupils instead of the present 10 per cent. Local councils would continue to control admissions policies for other schools.
Mrs Shephard confirmed that the nursery education voucher scheme would go nation-wide next year, ensuring that all parents of four-year-olds will receive a voucher worth pounds 1,100 in February.