As Mrs Shephard continued her campaign to placate the Conservative right- wingers, Labour yesterday accused her of making the announcement to try to divert attention from the defeat in the House of Lords late on Monday of plans for a nation-wide nursery voucher scheme.
Mrs Shephard had accepted recommendations from government examination advisers that 14-year-olds, who must all take national tests in English, maths and science, should face an additional exam in grammar, spelling and punctuation.
At present, English consists of two papers, a comprehension and essay and a Shakespeare test. English teachers have campaigned against the Shakespeare paper, maintaining that Shakespeare should be tested by coursework done in class and not by a timed written test.
Observers believe that Mrs Shephard's decision on grammar may be a concession to party right-wingers to pave the way for an announcement later this year that Shakespeare will be tested differently. Coursework assessment of Shakespeare is at present being trialled. However, the Prime Minister, who insisted that GCSE coursework should be cut back, has so far resisted attempts to test Shakespeare in such a way.
The new test, which could be in the form of an unstructured piece of prose into which pupils had to insert grammar, spelling and punctuation, could not be introduced until the year after next but the weight given to spelling, punctuation and grammar could be increased from next year.
Mrs Shephard said she was asking the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority to review English tests "to ensure that they reflect the emphasis the curriculum puts on correct English". She added: "If children are to learn to express themselves clearly and effectively and make full use of our wonderful language, they need to be taught how the English language works. This may seem a remarkably obvious message but it is one that sadly was lost by the trendy teaching of the Sixties and Seventies."
Anne Barnes, general secretary of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said that English teachers would be furious if such a test were introduced. The teachers argue that grammar should be tested through writing, and not through a separate test.
The Southampton report found that English teachers tended to concentrate on increasing pupils' creativity and teaching them about writing styles while foreign language teachers taught grammar in a more formal way.
David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, said: "Gillian Shephard is clearly beleaguered on all sides. Her announcement today comes several weeks after I made a similar back-to-basics speech and it is surely no coincidence that it comes on the day when the Lords have decided that a pilot scheme for nursery vouchers should properly evaluated before it becomes a national scheme."
Vouchers plan, page 6
Mistakes that pupils often make
Some of the most common grammatical errors are:
She come to my house
I was scared so I run away
We was going to the shops
I threw it out the window
The government think they can do what they like
I would of done it if I could of
Getting off of the bus
Blood is thickerer than water
Among the most common misspellings are: