Gillian Shephard clashed openly with the Prime Minister yesterday over her support for corporal punishment in schools.
After being ordered by John Major to toe the Government's agreed line, the Education Secretary told MPs: "My own personal view is that corporal punishment can be a useful deterrent . . . The Prime Minister takes a different personal view but the government position is that we are not putting the restoration of corporal punishment into the [Education] Bill."
Mrs Shephard faces fresh embarrassment after right-wing Tory MPs led by maverick backbencher Tony Marlow said last night they would force a Commons vote on the restoration of corporal punishment during the passage of the Education Bill to be published today.
Mrs Shephard will be forced to eat her words to keep to the government line on the Bill. The trouble began when the Secretary of State, not normally thought of as a member of the party's hanging and flogging wing, told the BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the Government had been looking seriously at the legal implications of bringing back corporal punishment and hinted that backbenchers might amend the Bill.
By 9am, Downing Street became alarmed that reports of Mrs Shephard's readiness to restore caning were leading the BBC news. As Mrs Shephard headed by train for the opening of a sixth-form college in Weybridge, Surrey, Downing Street officials contacted her press officer by mobile phone and warned him that the Prime Minister wanted to speak to her. The Prime Minister's office said Mr Major reminded Mrs Shephard that the Government was against caning being restored, because of the practical difficulties. The European Court of Human Rights had ruled against caning, and Britain was left with no alternative but to accept the judgment. The Education Bill contained measures to improve discipline in schools but in the consultation process, none of the teachers' unions had called for corporal punishment.
Teachers, who believe that discipline problems in a handful of schools, are being exploited by politicians, were furious. Peter Miller, president of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "I am so disappointed that Gillian Shephard has been tempted into saying something about corporal punishment. There is no way we can turn the clock back."
Downing Street's disclosure that they had spoken on the telephone sparked reports that she had been "rapped over the knuckles" or "caned" by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister's office later denied the reports, but there was no hiding the discomfort felt over the issue. "There is a settled government policy", said one source, making it clear that in future Mrs Shephard should stick to it.
t Solicitors acting for the mother of the 10-year-old boy at the centre of the discipline dispute at Manton School in Nottinghamshire plan to seek a judicial review of the decision to close it. In Halifax, inspectors went into Ridings School where teachers want at least 20 pupils to be expelled.
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