Cabinet warned of lost battle that will cost votes

The Shephard affair: Document shows Secretary of State poles apart from the party line over resources
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The Independent Online
WENDY BERLINER

Education Correspondent

Gillian Shephard's apparent acceptance that insufficient resources threaten the provision of education in state and grant-maintained schools is the most damning line in the leaked document that pulls no punches over the state of the nation's publicly-funded education service.

In it she warns that the Conservatives have lost the public relations battle over education .She says they face the loss of votes if they cut back on higher education and gives a firm hint that she is at odds with John Major over his policy of seeing all schools opting out of local authority control.

But it is over resources that she is at her most explosive and poles apart from the normal government line that the local authorities and the schools keep bags of cash in reserve and they only need to loosen the strings of them for all to be well.

Teachers, school governors and parents throughout the country will give a heartfelt cheer to hear said at government level what they know to be the truth at the grass roots, even if it is being said in private.

Last night Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "This is recognition of the accuracy of warnings to government of the risks facing education. Across the country teachers' jobs have disappeared and class sizes have risen as a consequence. The Prime Minister must act by reversing the cuts and investing massively in all our schools."

It is not the first time Mrs Shepherd's remarks on the funding of education have been leaked. Earlier this year it was revealed that she had warned Cabinet colleagues that up to 10,000 teachers jobs might go if the teachers' pay ward was not funded.

The award was only partly funded and led to mass protests by teachers and parents, but which got no more money out of the Government.

Experts believe that up to 14,000 teaching jobs could go over this year and next. Class sizes are rising, particularly in primary schools, and children with learning problems left to scrape along with little or no specialist help.

According to the latest figures 1 million children are in classes of more than 31 and 20,000 of those are in classes of more than 41. Yesterday, a South Oxfordshire primary school revealed it had one class of 46.

This is despite evidence that the youngest children in primary schools learn better in smaller classes. Mrs Shephard, a former local authority schools inspector, will know this.

The introduction to the document details what Mrs Shephard describes as "huge achievements to our credit", such as the introduction of the national curriculum, testing, a new inspection system and grant-maintained status.

But she adds: "This should be one of our major success stories but it is not. On education, Labour maintains a lead over us of about 30 per cent, compared with 20 per cent a year ago. There is a perception that schools are under-funded and peace in the classroom is threatened."

Warning that there are areas in which the Government is political exposed she says: "Insufficient resources now threaten the provision of education in the State school sector including GM [grant- maintained] schools."

She goes on to say the Government faces the loss of middle-class votes if there is any sudden reduction in the quantity of higher education or its cost to individuals.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "The cat is really now out of the bag. The Government must now come up with the money for education or its credibility will be totally destroyed."

Words that reveal minister's anxiety over government policy

The following is an extract from the leaked document which highlights Mrs Shephard's concerns.

This (government education policy) should be one of our major success stories but it is not. On education Labour maintains a lead over us of about 30 per cent compared with 20 per cent a year ago. There is a perception that schools are under-funded and peace in the classroom is threatened.

Notwithstanding our progress there are areas where we are politically exposed.

-the need to improve standards must not be overshadowed by arguments about the mechanics through which education is delivered;

- if the JSA (Job Seeker's Allowance) is not introduced successfully and on time the unemployed people will not receive the benefit to which they are entitled;

- insufficient resources now threaten the provision of education in the State school sector including GM schools;

- any sudden reduction in the quantity of HE or its cost to individuals would affect a whole segment of middle class youngsters, losing both their votes and those of their parents: stopping the growth of the dynamic FE sector would also be very difficult to defend;

- job insecurity and the fear of unemployment is holding back the feel good factor and therefore the recovery.

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