Review of 2008

We've recapped some of the most memorable moments of 2008 for you

Isabella Kaminski

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This year has seen plenty of debate about policy and spending. It has also seen triumphs for Wales's pupils and their teachers. We've recapped some of the most memorable moments for you

"Education, education, education," proclaimed former Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2000. It was a message the Assembly government took to extremes as it stuffed a decade's worth of activity into 2008 and put in a Herculean effort to show that Wales could step up its game in the classroom.

History was made in April as the first legislative competence order was passed in Wales, giving the government powers to draft new laws on special educational needs.

Blazing saddles

During the year, the government was quick to flaunt its educational ideas to other countries; teachers in Malta, Mexico and Poland couldn't get enough of them.

But Chris Davies, head of Brynteg Comprehensive School in Bridgend, who taught Olympic cyclist Nicole Cooke did not find it quite so easy to get his pupils on their bikes. Following Nicole's gold medal-winning performance in Beijing in August, he told TES Cymru of his countless attempts to enthuse them with stories of how she used to cycle to and from school in all weathers. There's dedication for you. And as Wales led the way on the rugby field, England was in hot pursuit.

This autumn, a red-faced Ed Balls, England's Schools Secretary, seemed finally to be coming round to the Welsh way of thinking when he dumped Sats at key stage 3 - albeit after a national marking scandal and following the launch of a controversial scheme to boost failing schools.

As Wales celebrated the success of the Welsh baccalaureate with a new intermediate-level certificate, England held an inaugural Vocational Qualifications Day - another Welsh innovation - on July 23 to celebrate its FE students' achievements.

Mind the gap

For all the glory, 2008 was a year when Welsh ministers were tetchy about education comparisons with England - but only when it suited them. Wales achieved fewer GCSE A*s than England this summer and the funding gap remains decidedly foggy, but we retain the moral victory having scrapped league tables and Sats.

David Hawker, Steve Marshall's "shock" replacement as director of the Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills (Dcells) this August, was the only one to admit there was more money in England's schools after a decade of silence on the issue. This month he vowed to battle for more.

In November, TES Cymru sparked controversy with a special issue dedicated to funding. Research by Professor David Reynolds, of Plymouth University, revealed huge underinvestment in Wales compared with the rest of the UK - especially England - since devolution. He estimated the difference in per- pupil funding was Pounds 500. But others protested Wales is richer in policy.

As the Wales v England debate grew, officials and government supporters hit back at Professor Reynolds by accusing him of running down Wales. But the 100 heads we polled said comparisons with England were inevitable as long as the two nations shared teachers' pay and conditions.

The cross-border debate also raged throughout the year over rural school closures. An Assembly committee investigating the issue was unconvinced by the evidence for keeping tiny village schools open, and dozens may still face the axe next year after their report was published last month.

Disabled rights

Several local authorities also have controversial school reorganisation plans on the cards. Campaigners in Cardiff, for example, have the odds stacked against them in their battle to keep a revitalised Llanedeyrn High open after the council recommended its closure and announced plans to build a new Welsh medium school this month. Campaigners have pledged to fight on in 2009.

Despite the drama, Jane Hutt, the education minister, has been wary of rocking the educational boat. Acting the diplomat, she has quietly built strong relations with teachers' unions and assuaged her critics with her listening prowess.

Thanks to her, disabled children now have firm rights and local authorities have been forced to give all young people equal opportunities for play and education.

The sticking point she inherited was lack of funding for the foundation phase. In May, Ms Hutt admitted officials had got their sums wrong, and in October she pledged more money. But she needn't have worried about a revolt; teachers were so in love with play-led learning, it did not matter that it was on a shoe-string.

Rocky road for 14-19

This autumn, as the foundation phase furore settled, the elephant in the room - 14-19 learning pathways - went on the rampage. John Griffiths, deputy education minister, said schools would have to offer pupils a minimum number of courses - or else. But by mid-December, following protests from heads and criticism from government committees, he gave schools a year's grace. The pathways will not now become statutory until 2010, which was enough to satisfy the finance committee that had panned Mr Griffiths for not properly costing the initiative.

Mind you, filling the shoes of Wales's ageing population of heads will take more than a wing and prayer. There were several over 65 at the start of the year, according to the General Teaching Council for Wales (GTWC).

Mike Howells, a legend in Welsh education circles, bowed out of his job at heads' union ASCL Cymru at their conference this month, offering a few pearls of wisdom and declaring his hope that heads' workload would ease off.

At the same time, unions claimed the much-vaunted workforce agreement was not being kept and that teachers were working flat out. Only the NASUWT, which now claims to be the largest teachers' union in England and Wales, felt schools had been given plenty of time to get the workload balance right and should just get on with it.

While heads got hot under the collar over red tape and health and safety legislation, teachers fumed over a fee hike by the GTCW, a grievance that dragged on all year.

Teachers on strike

There was also drama in the high court as a Sikh girl challenged her exclusion from Aberdare Girls' School for wearing her Kara bangle against school rules on discrimination grounds in August - and won.

Paul Davies, the head jailed for dangerous driving, also triumphed by getting his job back at Cwmdare Primary School. Mr Justice Blair overturned a GTCW ruling to strike him off in May, but the jury is still out on whether a "convicted criminal" should head a school.

In April, the NUT held its first strike for 21 years in a dispute over pay, just weeks after the death of its general secretary Steve Sinnott. But the picket lines met with mixed responses from the teaching profession, and a second strike planned for November failed to get off the ground.

Meanwhile, with straight-talking Scotsman Dr Bill Maxwell heading Estyn, the schools inspectorate has become more pro-active in encouraging good practice.

His annual report in February was particularly critical of local authorities - one-third of which were branded "poor", while the rest were seen as "unlikely to improve" - and the high number of schools in special measures.

The long-awaited National Behaviour and Attendance Review, published in May, also raised concerns about the wide differences in achievement across Wales, and revealed the true impact of truancy and bad behaviour on grades.

More than 90 schools have signed up to share good practice under the school effectiveness framework this autumn. But the scheme has already come under fire for including too many schools that perform well and aren't in deprived areas. It will be at least a year before its true impact can be measured.

Abuse allegations

This year, the government promised it would put family nurses into every secondary school, and work finally began on the national school-based counselling scheme first recommended in the Clywch Report of 2004, following claims of abuse made against John Owen, a drama teacher at Ysgol Gyfun Rhydfelen in Pontypridd during the late Eighties and early Nineties.

In September, eight of Mr Owen's alleged victims won compensation from Mid Glamorgan Education Authority (now Rhondda Cynon Taf Council).

And the ebullient Keith Towler, appointed children's commissioner at the tail-end of last year, began to make his mark this year by battling for children's rights in schools, and he threw his support behind Funky Dragon, the vocal and colourful young people's assembly for Wales.

But he complained that his staff were in need of some "tender loving care" after being deluged with calls, he admitted in an assembly committee just last month.

In a glittering ceremony in rainy October, Natalie Richards from Bishop Gore Comprehensive in Swansea shone as the first teacher from Wales for three years to win a national Teaching Award. The 28-year-old outstanding new teacher praised the "born teachers" of Wales.

Mind the carrot

Welsh language champions also had plenty to celebrate this year, as demand for Welsh-medium education soared in the south.

But teachers at the national Eisteddfod cultural event in Cardiff this August claimed that non-Welsh speaking parents had no "fire in their belly" about the language, and did not even bother to say "Bore da" instead of good morning at the gates of Welsh-medium schools.

And this month it emerged that Wales might have more in common with the US than its fellow Celts - at least in terms of its compensation culture. Plaid Cymru revealed that, in the past three years, more than Pounds 600,000 has been paid to teachers and pupils injured at school - the most bizarre example being a pupil who tripped on a piece of carrot.

At the same time, heads complained that not enough was being spent on Wales's crumbling schools. They had to endure the twin strains of extortionate heating costs and increasing pressure to become greener this year, as spending on school buildings was revealed to be the lowest priority for councils in Wales.

In September, the government agreed to extend free travel to secondary students and primary pupils over eight who live more than three miles from their nearest school. The measure, which has been allocated Pounds 3.7 million, also invites local authorities to promote access to Welsh-medium education, provoking complaints from the church that faith school pupils are getting an unfair deal.

Caning debate

In October there was good news for trainee teachers in Wales, when it was revealed that two-thirds had found teaching jobs within the Welsh borders. But competition remains fierce and there are fears of a "brain drain" of teaching talent to England.

The government was accused by the Lib Dems of wasting money on training too many new teachers, but Ms Hutt retorted she was reducing the number of places.

In October, the news that a TES survey had found one in five teachers in favour of bringing back the cane spread like wildfire throughout England and Wales, sparking fierce controversy and comic parodies.

But it wasn't all bad news. The work that teachers do for their pupils above and beyond the call of duty received some well-deserved acknowledgment during the TES Cymru-sponsored New Directions Inspirational Teacher Awards in July.

And throughout the year, extraordinary good practice stories kept on coming. Young people led the way, with Owen John, head boy at Ysgol Gyfun Gwyr in Swansea, organising a campaign against human trafficking that took him all the way to the Home Office in London.

Changing the world

In July, four pupils at Howell's School in Cardiff represented the UK at the prestigious J8 summit - the youth equivalent of G8 - in Japan.

They came back bursting with ideas to change the world and on a mission to share them with other young people.

Teachers were also full of innovative ideas, from philosophy for four- year-olds to live chamber orchestras in deprived areas. Forward-thinking schools even began offering Mandarin and Japanese lessons.

Then in December, as the Assembly government wound down for Christmas, there was one last shake-up. Kirsty Williams, the Lib Dems' education spokesperson, became the Welsh party's first female leader, leaving education to Jenny Randerson.

As the year drew to a close, the government promised - for now at least - there would be no new policy next year, which should give teachers a chance to reflect on what has changed and work out how to make the most of it. But after the turkey and mince pies have been digested, will it all prove too much to stomach?

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Isabella Kaminski

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