Shephard prepares for a period of calm pragmatism: The Secretary of State for Education tells Judith Judd of her plans to restore stability in Britain's schools

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The Independent Online
THE Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Shephard, is preparing to steer the education service through a period of pragmatic calm.

While she believes that last week's Conservative Party conference liked her traditionalist call for better grammar and spelling, she thinks they liked even better her promise of a period of stability in schools.

That is why she hopes there will be no more education legislation this parliament. Yet one of her biggest challenges is to ensure that next year's national curriculum tests go ahead in spite of the National Union of Teachers' boycott. Would she consider legislating to change teachers' contracts if they failed to call off the boycott?

She hopes the question is hypothetical and detects signs that most teachers now accept national tests as a useful tool.

Her efforts to win over the teaching profession have been well-publicised but that does not lessen her determination to defeat the opponents of the Government's testing programme.

A former teacher, whose husband is a member of the NUT, she said: 'Everything I have done has been to give due weight to the professionalism of teachers, but I do expect them to understand that testing is important to the Government.'

She is equally firm about teachers' pay. 'Out of all public employees they have had the largest increases of any public employees over the last five years.' According to her department's figures, teachers' pay had increased by 31 per cent in cash terms since 1990 compared with a 20 per cent increase for other wage-earners.

Teachers had to come to terms with the fact that, in the public mind, there was a perception that the 13 weeks a year schools are not in session were a vacation, she said. 'I know teachers don't have 13 weeks holiday a year. I am hugely sympathetic, but we have to see ourselves as others see us.'

So teachers cannot expect Mrs Shephard to plead that they are a special case during the pay round. She would always argue for a fair deal for teachers, she says, but they are one element in a range of public sector employees.

She was phlegmatic about the policy which is in deepest trouble - encouraging schools to opt out of local council control. So far the tally is 1,007 out of 24,000 and the pace has slowed dramatically: that was to be expected, she said, at this stage in the policy's development.

She has no special schemes to speed the rate but believes local government reorganisation will propel more schools into grant- maintained status. As local authorities are split up, she argues, and schools feel uncertain about their future under the new bodies, 'that may be as effective as any scheme you can devise'.

But she is convinced of the benefits of opting out and will insist that parents taking part in ballots have all the information they need and are not misinformed by local authorities.

A review of higher education has begun. The time has come, she believes, to look at the huge expansion of the last decade in partnership with universities. 'No one is seeking to filch their academic freedom but to ask what higher education is for, where it is going and even, as one vice-chancellor said to me, what is a degree.'

She will not consider reviewing the student loan system until the proportion of grant to loan reaches 50:50, some time in 1996-97.

Leading article, page 17 (Photograph omitted)