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News did not take a break

Schools may have been on holiday but education was rarely out of the headlines this summer. Adi Bloom reports.

As the first rays of summer sunshine appeared in late June, teachers across the country looked forward to six weeks of rest and relaxation.

But their long-term plans for life after school were quickly shattered, with news that the Government was planning to extend teachers' retirement age from 60 to 65.

Teachers reacted with horror. Chelsea Williams, 23, a teacher at Cantrell primary in Nottingham, said: "I can't imagine how I would have the energy to do such an exhausting job at 64. Teaching a class of 37 children is tiring me now."

Thoughts of a longer working life were not sweetened by the prospect of continued low pay.

In late July, teachers heard that the pay rises of only a third of those eligible to graduate to the upper pay spine would be funded by the Government.

In an effort to tackle the funding crisis and rash of teacher redundancies, Charles Clarke, Education Secretary, announced that another pound;800 million would be offered to schools. But, with money not available until September 2004, many heads still worried that they would start the new year with a deficit budget.

These were not concerns taxing Colleen McCabe. In July, a court heard how the head of St John Rigby secondary, in Kent, was too busy spending pound;500,000 of her school's budget on holidays, jewels and shoes to fritter it on trivialities such as clean classrooms or functional heating. She was jailed for five years.

Elsewhere, students endured similar deprivation in the name of light entertainment. Channel 4 recreated a 1950s school, complete with spam fritters, cold showers and harsh discipline for its docusoap, That'll Teach 'Em. Daily Mail readers everywhere felt a warm glow as the 30 GCSE students struggled to answer an old 11-plus paper.

Claims that things ain't what they used to be echoed even more loudly after the publication of this year's A-level results. As pass rates rose again, students were accused of opting for "easy" subjects such as psychology or media studies.

At GCSE, too, a record number of exam entries were graded A or A*. However, the proportion of fail grades also reached its highest point since 1992, sparking fears that there is a growing polarisation in the performance of 16-year-olds (Analysis, p 22).

Teachers determined to find ways to improve pupils' performance were to have a fruitful summer. One research paper recommended scanning children's brain activity. Another suggested that doing homework in front of EastEnders might not be conducive to success.

More seriously, a government taskforce, chaired by former chief inspector Mike Tomlinson, proposed replacing A-levels and GCSEs with an overarching, baccalaureate-style diploma.

And educationists continued to question the value of tests at key stages 2 and 3 as, for the fourth year running, test results for 11-year-olds stalled. But political commentators suggested that the most important lesson had already been learnt: ministers now know better than to stake their careers on meeting Sats targets.

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