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Labour's year of living dangerously

The coming school year could be make-or-break for a Labour government that finds its record of educational achievement being questioned as never before.

Almost 12 months after taking office, Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, has yet to solve many of the problems he inherited from his predecessor.

Teachers' workload, exam reform and university top-up fees continue to provide ammunition for assorted government critics while giving ministers and civil servants sleepless nights. The best news so far has been a relatively trouble-free A-level period.

Mr Clarke will also have to tackle the school funding crisis and the National Union of Teachers' threat to boycott national tests.

Senior government figures admit privately that they need to regain control of the agenda and convince an increasingly sceptical public that their drive to improve school standards has not run out of steam.

Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, says that Mr Clarke is suffering both from the failures of his predecessors Estelle Morris and David Blunkett and his own ambitions to be prime minister. "Charles Clarke needs to start being his own man rather than having one eye on Number 10 and one on keeping the Chancellor happy," he said.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will be hoping that their conferences act as a springboard towards the next election - in the case of the former they will hope to find policies that appeal to both their hardline leader and his "wet" education spokesman.

But it is Mr Clarke who will have the trickiest time by the sea.

Labour delegates will be asking what happened to the promised "record investment" in schools and why a manifesto promise not to introduce university top-up fees has been ignored.

With both opposition parties ready to resist them, top-up fees will only become reality if Mr Clarke can persuade some 100 or so potential Labour rebels to support the policy. So expect more tales of arm-twisting by whips, re-branding by spin doctors and perhaps even the odd concession from ministers before and after the Bill is formally introduced in the Queen's speech in November. In addition to sweet-talking rebels Mr Clarke will be expected to schmooze Gordon Brown, in an effort to win more money for schools in the Chancellor's November pre-budget statement.

With government finances under pressure and much of the "spare" cash already committed to the health service, next summer's three-year spending review will be vital. Many schools have deficits or reduced reserves following this year's funding crisis and heads, teachers and parents will greet anything other than another record increase with dismay.

Mary Bousted starts her new job at the helm of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. Her first task will be to boost membership. At the NUT it will be a hard year of campaigning by the candidates bidding to succeed Doug McAvoy as general secretary. Steve Sinnott, deputy general secretary, John Bangs, head of the union's education department, and John Illingworth, a Nottinghamshire head and former president, will be slugging it out. The result will be announced at the end of June.

The NUT will also have to prepare for action over key stage tests. Barring a change of heart from the leadership, a Christmas ballot will decide whether it boycotts next May's tests of seven, 11 and 14-year-olds.

Even without a boycott, the Government has already admitted it is unlikely to meet its original 2004 primary test targets and has delayed them until 2006.

For Mr Clarke and his colleagues the academic year ahead looks like a tough one.

* In Wales, the Welsh baccalaureate is launched this month. Pupils in 18 secondaries will pilot the new qualification, which combines existing AS-level and A-level courses with language lessons, work experience and community service.

The Welsh Assembly taskforce will begin its review of testing at key stages 2 and 3. When the group reports back next spring, it is expected that tests for 11-year-olds will be abolished in favour of teacher assessment.

Action plans for the new, play-based foundation stage for three to seven-year-olds, and flexible 14 to 19 curriculum are also expected, following major consultations last year.

But, as in England, there are fears over funding. Geraint Davies, Welsh secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "We need more resources. Otherwise there could be a major catastrophe with hundreds of teachers losing their jobs."


* Expansion of specialist schools to continue. Ministers are well placed to raise the number from the current 1,454 to their target of 2,000 by 2006.

* Eyes will be on the first 103 "leading edge" schools that will pioneer new ways of working. A second round of bidding for the programme (formerly known as advanced specialist schools) will begin in October.

* The findings of the Government's maths inquiry will be published in mid-September. It will introduce the concept of "maths for the citizen", a course in practical numeracy for all students.

* A new government strategy for special needs is expected before Christmas.

* Ministers will be hoping to avoid missing another truancy target. Unauthorised absence is supposed to fall by 10 per cent between 2002-4.

* Pilot broadcasts are expected to begin in the autumn of the new state-funded digital TV channel for teachers

Children's Green Paper

A children's commissioner will be appointed to safeguard young people's rights and protect them from abuse, the Government will announce on Monday.

The delayed Children's Green Paper will also include plans to make one official in each council responsible for all children's services - including education.

Ministers want the new directors of children's services to implement a "joined up" approach with increasing numbers of school-based social and health workers.

It will be the first major public test for Margaret Hodge whose appointment as children's minister was widely criticised because of her handling of a child abuse scandal in Islington, north London, in the early 1990s.

Primary strategy

More money, freedom and a whiteboard in every classroom - that is what heads want from the new primary strategy. They also want recognition that their schools cannot solve all social problems.

Primary teachers, meanwhile, are fed up with being told what to do by ministers and their unhappiness lies behind the NUT's decision to ballot for a boycott of next year's tests.

14-19 curriculum

Even the Government's critics admit that it is in a no-win situation as it reforms the 14-19 curriculum. Traditionalists will attack any dilution of their cherished "gold standard" A-level , while reformers want to replace A-levels and GCSEs with a coherent five-year curriculum that includes academic and vocational skills.

Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector charged with reviewing 14-19, has suggested a baccalaureate-style diploma within five to 10 years. More detailed proposals are due in January, but the Government has until Mr Tomlinson's final report in July before it has to decide.

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