Shephard forced to turn right

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The Independent Online
Last week, education correspondents received a summons to a drink at the Department for Education and Employment. The pretext was to hear the Secretary of State Gillian Shephard's observations on the school systems in Colombia and Chile, which she had just visited.

As invitations went out the Daily Telegraph was preparing a story chronicling grumbles from Conservative Central Office over Mrs Shephard's performance. Over the Chilean white wine and sandwiches the following lunchtime, she had moved rapidly from her South American reflections to her plans for the coming months. She has, read the clear subtext, an agenda radical enough to satisfy the most red-blooded Conservative.

That Mrs Shephard has been forced to court the newspapers is an indicator of how her stock has fallen. Once talked of as a future party leader, Mrs Shephard is now blamed by some colleagues for losing the initiative on education policy. As one source put it last week: "She's just not scoring runs. There is disquiet - we are not making the running on education."

Such grumbles have a familiar ring. Over the past decade the Conservatives have alternated between "radical" education secretaries who have shaken up the system, and "consolidators" who have then repaired relations within the profession.

For example, Kenneth Baker, who launched a national curriculum, was followed by John MacGregor, who wooed teachers by slowing the pace of change and listening to their unions. Mrs Shephard's direct predecessor was John Patten who had provoked hostility throughout the teaching profession. As a former school inspector, married to an ex-teachers' union activist, Mrs Shephard was supposed to be another good listener.

But, as with previous "consolidators", Mrs Shephard is now a target for more ideological Tories. Her special adviser, Elizabeth Cottrell, a formidable and eccentric 55-year-old who guards access to her minister jealously, has been the target of much of the fire.

Mrs Shephard's political difficulties began over how to expand nursery school provisions. Cabinet right-wingers wanted to use the pre-school sector to try out one of their favourite ideas: giving parents vouchers so that they can "shop around" for schools - thus creating a market. Mrs Shephard proposed a bureaucratic alternative: local authorities would submit proposals for expansion to a central agency. The Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, went against the Shephard plan. As one source put it, "her scheme was rubbished, she was duffed up by the big boys".

Mrs Shephard, an ally of the Prime Minister, and member of his so-called East Anglian mafia (her constituency is Norfolk South West), lost kudos as a Cabinet heavyweight. The Downing Street Policy Unit has moved in on the attack, arguing for a doubling of the assisted places scheme and for grammar schools in every town. On both these issues, Mrs Shephard is cautious.

She is not the first education minister to run into problems with Downing Street. Margaret Thatcher believed that a succession of her ministers from Sir Keith Joseph onwards had "gone native" at the department. Mr Baker and Brian Griffiths, then head of the policy unit, clashed regularly. Mrs Shephard's problems have been compounded by Labour's invasion of Tory territory on schools, presenting itself as the party of high standards. This has increased calls from the right for clearer blue water between the parties.

Now, Mrs Shephard has gone with the flow. Her White Paper, due out on 2 July, will increase the scope both for selection and specialisation in schooling.