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Start of year sets a frantic pace

The issues and personalities that are set to make a big impression in the classroom and on the political agenda in 2003.

AFTER one of the busiest years on record for education news, anyone hoping things might be quieter in 2003 is in for a disappointment.

The start of the year promises to be unusually frantic, with several of the biggest developments held over from the autumn.

Two, both scheduled for this month, dominate: the review of university funding and the publication of the Government's long-awaited plans to revamp education for 14 to 19-year-olds.

The third, and the one closest to many teachers' hearts, is workload. Teachers could get the equivalent of half a day's non-contact time, although the details and timescale have yet to be agreed. But hopes of a deal could still be scuppered by arguments over whether teaching assistants should be allowed to take classes.

The 14-19 review has assumed greater significance since ministers said they would use it to include their response to Mike Tomlinson's inquiry following last summer's A-level regrading row.

As well as giving details on how he plans to boost vocational education through closer links between schools and colleges, schools minister David Miliband must decide whether to accept Mr Tomlinson's long-term suggestion that the AS level be "de-coupled" from the A2.

Some argue that acceptance will undermine the thrust of Labour's drive, launched three years ago, to broaden the curriculum.

Just as fundamental will be whether Mr Miliband can accept another recommendation from Mr Tomlinson, to cut the number of exams taken by students.

Amid the A-level fallout, another big question is how far ministers are willing to go in embracing a baccalaureate system, which Education Secretary Charles Clarke has said he is interested in.

Ministers will have concerns about how this year's exams go and the big challenge will come in the summer, with 24 million scripts to be marked and 50,000 examiners needed.

The higher education white paper has assumed immense importance for Labour, with suggestions that top-up fees for students, which would be unpopular with the middle classes, could become the party's poll tax.

Teachers will find themselves in the spotlight later this month as two-year discussions about cutting workload reach a conclusion just as the profession is likely to be offered a three-year pay deal.

But with ministers in an uncompromising mood and promising an award little better than inflation, expect a strong reaction, possibly including industrial action, from the National Union of Teachers.

This year Eamonn O'Kane, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, will renew his efforts to unify the three big unions, but still faces much opposition.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers is braced for a battle for the post of general secretary, as the leadership's preferred candidate, Dr Mary Bousted, can expect to be challenged by the union's deputy Gerald Imison among others.

Big changes in the running of schools will allow around half the chance to opt out of pay and conditions and national curriculum rules from September, when a new, lighter-touch school inspection regime is introduced. Teacher shortages have receded slightly as an issue, amid rising numbers of recruits, but maths and science candidates remain a huge challenge.

One question will dominate: can Labour show real improvements throughout education as a general election looms?

But there is one thing to relish this year: there are no government targets for 2003.

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