The head girl in charge

Gillian Shephard may not have won more money for teachers but she is an enthusiast for the state system that educated her
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INTERVIEWING cabinet ministers can be tedious: the vast impersonal offices, the ever-present civil servants issuing warnings about tight timing, the aides who pop in at crucial moments with notes offering their politician an escape. It is as if a terrified bureaucracy has devised an encounter that precludes any possibility of proper conversation, encourages dull repetition of departmental briefs.

And sure enough, arriving to interview Gillian Shephard, you are whisked up through the jungly atrium in a glass lift and ushered ceremoniously into the splendid ministerial suite, where the Secretary of State for Education and the coffee materialise as if conjured up by magicians, one of whom sits ominously taking notes in the background. On the sofa, Mrs Shephard in her serious lady politician's uniform - black jacket and tartan skirt - mines the cabinet minister's facility for never answering a direct question about policy directly.

Something, though, is different here: giggles punctuate Shephard's often terrifically interested responses. She can be dry, a technique she uses to disarm ("thank goodness this doesn't have to be a soundbite") and seems to be enjoying herself, to be full of galloping enthusiasms. She doesn't take refuge behind a slew of statistics; and when she does offer a figure she apologises and adopts an American accent, as if to emphasise the pomposity of the things politicians have to say.

I interviewed her once before, when she was a junior social security minister, and on the way up in the lift her staff enthused to me about her talents, her likely future. This time, on the way down, her civil servant tells me she's always popping out to buy her own sandwiches.

It is not enough though, to be liked, and this is a testing time for Gillian Shephard. Her failure to get the money she wanted for teachers' pay will almost certainly lead to job losses and larger classes, and fracture her assiduously repaired relationships with teachers' unions. Some school governors - many of them natural Tory supporters - are now refusing to set budgets inside the new limits. The Government's oft-repeated refrain that problems in schools are the fault of incompetent teachers and inefficient local authorities does not seem to be resonating quite so powerfully now that parents are more involved in school management.

Shephard's appointment eight months ago signalled to an educational world still reeling from Kenneth Baker, Ken Clarke and John Patten that the Government now meant to manage rather than to use schools as a proving ground for ideology. She has spread calm, largely because, unlike her predecessors, she is in no danger of demonising the state system. She worked in it as a teacher and an inspector; her husband was a comprehensive school head and is still a member of the NUT; and, most importantly perhaps, she owes it a lot.

You can still see the head girl in Gillian Shephard; the child who arrived at her grammar school to be thrilled by "a whole wonderful world of enormous glamour - science overalls, hockey sticks, specialist teachers - and I just thought it was the last word, and I longed to start French, longed to start Latin, was absolutely school-ready, plunged into it and adored it". She hasn't lost her optimism: she enthuses now about further education colleges, with their women returners inspired to take degrees or start their own businesses, their apprentices working alongside people with Down's syndrome: "absorbed in this whole busy thriving learning environment, having a terrific time, improving their skills, part of a whole community - it's amazing, it's really, well, frankly, inspiring. And to me that's a big part of what education is about - enabling, getting up that ladder."

She was born 55 years ago in Norfolk. Her father was a cattle dealer, a job she describes as "deeply ungrand, but difficult to place: buying and selling cattle for others, going to local markets, being keyed into the local agricultural scene but apart from it, not with the same social standing as a farmer". She went to Oxford (where she read French) and has always spent as much time in France as possible, but in a sense, she has never left her home county - working there most of her adult life, becoming deputy leader of the county council and chairman of social services, marrying a local man and representing one of its constituencies.

"I am lucky in having very visible roots. If you have been to the local primary school and know all the local people, what they've gone on to be - for example, the coalman, smallholder, farm worker, carpenter, foster parent - you really do have a very clear sense of where you come from and what your identity is, no matter what you've gone on to do. It would be absurd to say that I haven't changed, because of course I've been fortunate to have this enormously rich experience that I'm having now, which is amazing and wonderful ... almost incredible. Nevertheless I'm very clear where I come from and don't have the least problem adapting back and forth."

Shephard was the sort of able pupil who gets "taken up" by teachers and adults in authority, not least because she reflects so well on them. Her piano teacher, for example, "fought a battle royal with the teachers at the school because she wanted me to do music and they wanted me to do French or Latin. But she was socially influential, because one went to her house and saw other ways of going on - ground coffee, sherry, grand pianos."

Equipped by education and people like her piano teacher to negotiate the system, she became the kind of Conservative who takes it upon herself to use her head girl skills to benefit the community. She had a series of jobs - teacher, school inspector, adviser on primary school French, educational planner - but the one she enthuses about most was "called something like community services adviser. What it basically involved was helping the community to equip themselves with community centres, village halls, playing fields, at a time when many communities didn't have them but there were grants available; it was the most richly enjoyable job imaginable".

When she was 35 she gave it all up to become a wife and stepmother to two boys, then aged 14 and 11 - except that "gave it all up" is a slight exaggeration because she rapidly acquired a part-time job working for a director of Anglia television and another helping to set up a Norfolk museum of rural life. She lectured for the WEA and the Cambridge extra- mural department and became a magistrate, deputy leader of Norfolk County Council and chairman of the health authority.

Arriving at Westminster in 1987, she was swiftly promoted: education is her third cabinet post, following employment and agriculture. On the school governors question, she says the rebels do still only have interim budgets; they will need to consider what else local authorities are spending money on; and anyway, local management of schools has confounded the sceptics and proved a success. But she concludes, with a mischievous look, that "there is almost always a risk of more criticism as you widen the democratic process". You get the sense that she knows that no amount of protestation can change the fact that she failed to get extra money for teachers; the rest is posturing.

Gillian Shephard was recently photographed climbing out of a car and into her shoe, an image that summed up both her efficient, executive woman side, with the beautiful diamond rings and good legs, and the person who doesn't stand on ceremony, who is bouncy and informal with her staff and capable of irony about herself. She keeps two pairs of shoes in the office: slick pumps for meetings, and flatties for dashing between them.

She has been mooted as a candidate for foreign secretary when Douglas Hurd goes. But despite recent increasingly Euro-sceptical noises, she may well be seen as too francophile to suit the party in its present mood. She has also been talked of as a future leader, although the party will almost certainly want someone more ideological next time. The teachers' pay debate has also raised questions about her forcefulness in the Cabinet. But whatever she does will be done with verve, a sense that if it's worth doing, it's jolly well worth having fun with. Perhaps her charm is calculated. But when so many politicians are utterly charmless, who cares?