GILLIAN SHEPHARD yesterday announced a national campaign to improve the way the nation speaks while calling what amounted to a truce between the Government and teachers.
She told the party conference that she was 'accepting in full' Sir Ron Dearing's recommendations for slimming down and simplifying the national curriculum, and that the new curriculum would 'respond to teachers' concerns about overload'.
She had also accepted Sir Ron's recommendation that there should be no further change for five years, 'and I think teachers will find that package welcome'.
The slimmer, more flexible curriculum would, however, 'make no concessions whatsoever on standards and rigour', Mrs Shephard said. For the first time, there will be a requirement for proper attention to be paid to correct English across the curriculum, while the new English curriculum itself will require 'more emphasis on grammar, spelling and punctuation' and on 'written and spoken standard English'.
She told the conference: 'For too long, we have been too slack in our treatment of English.'
She said she was already talking to the CBI, television companies and others about a campaign to be launched in the spring. But while it would concentrate on standard English, Mrs Shephard, MP for South West Norfolk, stressed that , suppressing for the day the traces of Norfolk burr and Estuary English in her own voice, said outside the hall that it would not mean 'driving out regional accents or dialects' even though it might involve children 'becoming bilingual'.
Dialect could enrich language, she said, but Norfolk children needed to know that a 'bishy-bishy barnabee' was a ladybird in standard English in order to make themselves understood.
The perils of the minister's campaign were promptly illustrated, however, by her having to disapprove of James Kelman's Booker prize-winning novel How Late it Was, How Late, written in a Glasgow patois that Rabbi Julia Neuberger, one of the judges, condemned as 'incomprehensible'. Mrs Shephard based her disapproval on its being 'a little unnecessarily adorned by four-letter words'.
, adding later that
She said many people regarded an Edinburgh accent as the best spoken English because every consonant was clearly pronounced, but added 'I am not making any judgements'. The syntactically challenged John Prescott won her praise, however, because 'he always conveys his meaning'.
In her speech, Mrs Shephard said that what education needed now was 'a period of stability and consolidation' to allow the reforms to take root and fully flower. In language that would have been inconceivable a few months ago from the former Secretary of State John Patten, she went out of her way to praise teachers for absorbing 'an enormous amount of change over the last decade' and added that even the National Union of Teachers was 'not all bad'.
She acclaimed teachers as 'frontline troops in the battle against thuggish behaviour and indiscipline in society'. They were 'the keepers of standards' and would 'have all my support in that struggle'.
The Conservative party's dance with nursery education continued, Mrs Shephard declaring herself -
On nursery provision, Mrs Shephard said she was in contrast to some representatives in the debate - as 'a firm believer in the value of pre-school education' while making it clear that it would only expand 'as resources allow'.