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Shephard's scars

In the last of our series about university memories, Gillian Shephard tells Simon Midgley about viva panic at Oxford. Now that was a point of extreme difficulty," Gillian Shephard says, wincing at the memory. The Secretary of State for Education and Employment, aged 56, is recalling a day 35 years ago when she returned to Oxford for her viva.

Earlier that summer, having completed her finals, the then Miss Watts, an enthusiastic 21-year-old Francophile, "zoomed off" to France for a holiday in Provence with friends. When she returned to Oxford for the verbal exam, she was hoping for a solid second-class degree in modern languages. The viva, she thought, would be a short, formal exam to establish her second.

To her horror, instead, Miss Watts found herself being subjected to a long and detailed paper-by-paper exam. She assumed she was being vivaed for a third and went into "the most immense panic". "I could hardly cope with any of the questions," she says "you know, like 'what is your name', because I was so certain that I was being vivaed for a third". She discovered later that the interrogation had in fact been to see if she was worthy of a first. In the event she was awarded a second. It still rankles that her tutors did not warn her beforehand.

"I could not imagine for one moment that I was being vivaed for a first," she says. "I discovered afterwards and I threw it away. That was awful. I bear the scars still. I resolved I would never ever in my life be in that kind of panic again."

The anecdote is telling. Not only because it illustrates Mrs Shephard's passionate belief in scholarship, but also because it betrays a steely resolve not easily to be wrongfooted. Perhaps, also, it reveals a fierce capacity for self-criticism. There are echoes here, for instance, of her feelings on seeing Oxford for the first time several years earlier. Having passed her college entrance exam, she was invited to interview for a place at St Hilda's, an all-women's college.

"It's very interesting," Shephard says. "This is very much the story of my life, I have to say. I very much wanted to succeed in the written exam but when I went to Oxford for the interview, I was so overwhelmed by how splendid it was, by how much I wanted to go, that of course I thought 'Gosh if only I had known I would have tried harder in the exams, really sort of set myself to get into this place' because it is so amazing and now if I don't get in I shall really mind."

In the event, she need not have worried. In 1958 she went up to St Hilda's, which, she says, "was rather enfolding. We all had to be in by 10pm. Visitors' hours were something like between 2pm and 7pm by which time everybody - I mean men - had to be out of college." There were boyfriends but "absolutely nobody serious". The lasting friendships were made with women. She is still close to Sheila Browne, her moral tutor at St Hilda's who went on to become chief of Her Majesty's Inspectorate and then principal of Newnham College. Shephard socialised a lot and sang second soprano in the Bach Choir.

A passionate believer in the importance of single sex education, she regrets the diminishing opportunities for men and women to be educated in such establishments. The loss of single sex schools in the name of equality, she believes, has led to the disappearance of female role models as heads of colleges and senior academics and set women's achievement in society back several generations.

Money at university was tight. She had one pound a week pocket money to spend. "So I am deeply unsympathetic to stories of student hardship now. It's amazing how far it went. Of course I worked in the vacations to supplement all of that. As for the thought of having a music centre, toasters and computers and all these things that students have and still claim I I could not be more unsympathetic, I have to say."

Nor did she find Oxford "at all overwhelming". "I should have done - I wonder whether I was blind. I am very gregarious. What I adored was the variety of people that I met. We were face to face with a world where scholarship was what mattered most. That is the gift that Oxford gave to me and it has greatly coloured my attitude to what I do in this job and my attitude towards the importance of higher education to society."

Quite where her passionate perfectionism and tendency to self-flagellation emerged from is hard to say. The only child of a cattle dealer and small livestock farmer, she was born and brought up in rural Norfolk. "It was," she says, "the antithesis of a bookish background." Her parents were very bright but her mother left a Sheffield grammar school at the age of 14 and her father joined the family agricultural business at 12.

They belonged to a class, she says, which hardly exists now - "yeoman farmer". Livestock rearing and cattle dealing was a very precarious existence. The family income was sporadic - dependent on commission and the vicissitudes of the agricultural industry. She attended a village primary school with 32 pupils on the roll and an inspirational headmistress. "I had a romantic idea of France and everything French really because of the head of our primary school who herself had had a short period living in France and was a wonderful teacher. This is really the basis of my absolute belief that it is the quality of the teacher that counts."

After passing her 11-plus exam she went to a small, single sex country grammar school, North Walsham High School, with 300 pupils on roll. "I longed to go to the grammar school," she says. "I longed to learn science, Latin and French, to take part in all the things that went on, hockey and tennis, dramatic productions and the choirs."

These were the austere postwar years. Shephard grew up acutely aware of the precarious nature of her family's livelihood. "The generation I was a part of - I was born in 1940 - was probably one of the last of the conforming generations. We were not at the time particularly troubled by rebelling or kicking against the system because we were all so enchanted to be in a system, our parents having experienced the end of systems as they knew them because of the war."

In 1956 she passed eight O Levels and two years later A levels in Latin, French and History. She thinks she got two As and a B. She also became head girl and passed a state scholarship in French.

The great debate, Shephard says, is what is the purpose of higher education now that we have a participation rate of about one in three. When she was at Oxford it would have been around 7 per cent. "Juxtapose those two sets of facts and you find yourself in a territory that has not been experienced by other secretaries of state, or by the population.

"One in three are participating, half of those are mature students and 40 per cent of those are women. I constantly remind myself that this is tremendously important. That what was excellent must remain but that the purpose and target of the higher education system have changed. The debate has changed but what must not be lost is the excellence and the scholarship and the importance attached to those, including research.

"The system is doing different things but what is still important is that people feel they have to aspire and that getting a degree is something that is worth having, worth working for and when you have got it, it has a lot of meaning. In setting up the Dearing review what I am doing is putting at the forefront this whole question of retaining those standards, that excellence, for whatever purpose in whatever field, that I experienced in a completely different world."

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