Shephard bids for centre ground on schools

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The Independent Online
GILLIAN Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, yesterday shifted the Government's education policy towards the centre when she revealed doubts about two of the policies dearest to Conservative right-wingers.

In an interview with the Independent, she expressed reservations about vouchers for nursery places and the introduction of more grammar schools.

Mrs Shephard's remarks confirm the Government's drive to capture the centre ground of politics launched by Mr Major at the Tory party conference last week. Her approach will help calm the Government's often troubled relations with teachers.

The right has been a powerful influence on the Conservatives' education policy for more than a decade. Margaret Thatcher, who regretted closing dozens of grammar schools when she was secretary of state for education, began the search for ways of restoring them soon after she came to power.

Mrs Shephard's predecessor, John Patten, while publicly neutral about selective education, was privately enthusiastic about encouraging more grammar schools. He allowed a number of schools to become partially selective.

Asked about her attitude, Mrs Shephard replied: 'I am much more interested in specialist schools than selective schools.' She believed pupils had much to gain from international contacts promoted by city technology colleges and schools specialising in sports, performing arts and modern languages.

Several schools that have opted out of local authority control have applied for permission to introduce selection. Mrs Shephard, who has impressed teachers with her willingnes to listen, said such applications would be treated on their merits. However, she stressed 'the point of schools opting out is not to enable them to become selective'.

Mrs Shephard said pupils would be selected by aptitude for specialist schools: a child who hated sport, for instance, would be miserable in a sports college. Pupils would not be selected for academic ability as grammar school pupils are.

On the review of nursery education announced by the Prime Minister last week, Mrs Shephard said all the options were still being considered, including that of offering parents vouchers. 'There is no decision on vouchers. I must say I am very conscious of the unwieldy nature of vouchers.

You don't want the machinery to overshadow the policy.'

Earlier this year, vouchers were thought to be favoured in Downing Street's review of the options for expanding nursery education.

Mrs Shephard said that whatever the Government decided about nursery education would not involve legislation. She had promised a period of stability and she hoped there would be no more education legislation this parliament. 'We are not intending to lower the statutory school starting age to four,' she said.

The Government would provide new money for nursery education, she said, and the programme of expansion would start before the next election. 'We will not be having a big bang approach. It would be a planned introduction rolled out over a period of time.' Pilot projects such as after-school child care might be the first step.

Mrs Shephard's remarks coincided with the publication of a survey by the National Association of Head Teachers which found that nearly one in three secondary schools may have to lay off teachers this year.

The survey of more than 200 schools shows that cuts have compelled schools to raise pounds 170m to pay for essentials such as books.

Interview, page 10 Leading article, page 17