2011: Britain's year-long winter of discontent

23rd December 2011 at 00:00
Pension reform, riots and strikes - even Jamie Oliver couldn't help

As 2011 unfurled after an unusually white Christmas, the country was in the grip of its coldest winter for 100 years. Climate scientists blamed Arctic air, but an as-yet-unexplored theory was the effect of a significantly cooler relationship between the education secretary and the teaching unions.

While 2010 had hardly been witness to a steamy love affair between Michael Gove and the unions, the Coalition's plan for public sector pension reform ensured relations turned frosty. The Government adopted Lord Hutton's recommendations on workers' pensions, meaning teachers and heads faced the prospect of their contributions increasing by 50 per cent, working for longer and receiving less money when they eventually retire.

In exchange for all this, via his Education Bill, Mr Gove offered teachers anonymity if they were unlucky enough to be accused of wrongdoing by a pupil and the power to rifle through pupils' bags, pockets and even mobile phones. But the offer failed to gain much traction and the ATL and NUT teaching unions began to signal that a ballot on strike action would take place.

The first light relief of the year arrived in February, when TV presenter Johnny Ball claimed that climate change apologists were trying to ruin him after he called climate change "alarmist nonsense".

Mr Ball's woes failed to offer the education secretary much distraction, however, as heads were angry about the introduction of the English Baccalaureate: a performance measure demanding pupils achieve at least a grade C in English, maths, two sciences, history or geography and a language. And a TES investigation revealed that many of the Government's favoured academy chains - particularly Ark, Harris and Haberdashers' Aske's - had performed poorly when it came to the number of pupils taking the EBac suite of subjects.

Spring saw Mr Gove's hero, Mossbourne Community Academy's executive principal Sir Michael Wilshaw, draw similarities between being a headteacher and Clint Eastwood. Sir Michael called for more "lone warriors" - and got Jamie Oliver.

In trying to create Jamie's Dream School, a place of learning for the disaffected, the chef bit off more than he could chew. Mr Oliver assembled a stellar cast of celebrity teachers, but the only lesson learnt was that teaching is not easy. Who knew? Only the many hundreds of thousands of teachers.

Meanwhile, Mr Gove was continuing with his reform agenda and Alison Wolf published her review of vocational qualifications, which called for an end to the "perverse incentives" that lead schools to enter their students to courses that have "no value".

The country was preoccupied with the royal wedding at the end of April, offering the Coalition a brief respite, but teaching unions were not to be duped and their conference season saw many a sabre rattled over the reforms.

In May the new admissions code was published - just six months late. In a sweetener for teachers, ministers put forward plans to allow the children of teaching staff to jump to the front of the queue. The same month also witnessed Obamamania on these shores, with students from the Globe Academy in Southwark, south London, treated to a visit from the US president.

Not to be outdone, Mr Gove continued his own charm offensive by making it easier for schools to fail an Ofsted inspection. Changes meant raw test results could lead to more than 5,000 schools being deemed as failing.

ATL and NUT members staged a walkout in July. The summer also saw heads' union the NAHT call for a ballot on a nationwide walkout in protest against pension reforms.

Just before the summer break, Ofsted's outgoing chief executive Christine Gilbert used her final speech to say that too many of the schools her organisation described as "outstanding" were not outstanding at all when it came to teaching - proving that she was worth every penny of the #163;200,000-plus she earned each year.

Teachers set off to try to enjoy six weeks without marking or Michael Gove. But August arrived and bored teenagers across the UK were caught up in the riots. With prime minister David Cameron nowhere to be seen, it fell to Mr Gove, as the Government's spokesman, to warn of the trouble with idle hands.

The riots meant the nation breathed a sigh of relief when schools reopened in September. And among those opening their doors were the first 24 free schools.

The new academic year coincided with a new start for TES, which dropped its newspaper style to become a glossy magazine. The relaunch coincided with the news that almost half of parents would like to see the return of corporal punishment in schools.

In the autumn, Channel 4 broadcasted its fly-on-the-wall documentary Educating Essex (see panel, below). It gave teachers the chance to shout "See what we're dealing with here!"

Education's Dirty Harry, Sir Michael Wilshaw, was announced as Ofsted's new chief executive in October. But by November the news was dominated by the proposed pension strikes. The day of action on 30 November saw hundreds of thousands of public sector workers walk out, despite an improved offer from the Government.

The industrial action ensured that the year ended as bitterly as it started. Any hopes that 2012 is likely to be warmer should be extinguished: the forecast is bleak. Have a merry Christmas.


Channel 4's Alternative Christmas Message has been delivered on previous Christmases by such famous figures as the president of Iran and Sacha Baron Cohen's comic character Ali G.

This year it will be the turn of a principal and deputy from a secondary school in Harlow. But then, 2011 was the year Vic Goddard and Stephen Drew (pictured) became bona fide TV celebrities, thanks to the documentary series Educating Essex.

The programme attracted around two million viewers, intrigued to get a fly-on-the-wall look at the challenges faced by a modern British school, and provoked more discussion on Twitter than Big Brother.

Mr Drew won fans within minutes of the first episode for his dogged yet unflappable approach to behaviour management. But the series' charm was also in how it presented teachers at Passmores Academy behaving behind the scenes, including showing the jovial Mr Goddard jumping out from behind a door to surprise Mr Drew.

Some tabloid newspapers attempted to drum up outrage at the staff's matey banter, but it was clear that they had misjudged the public's response to the school, which was overwhelmingly positive.

Mr Goddard told TES he had been amazed to receive 15,000 emails since the series started, around two-thirds of which were from teachers. The Training and Development Agency for Schools called him to say that many teacher training applicants were now citing Educating Essex as inspiration, and the body has invited Mr Goddard and "the Drewster" to give lectures.

"We also had letters from all over the world, even from troops in Helmand Province, writing 'You do a harder job than we do'," he said. "That's lovely, but ridiculous - we don't, we really don't. We're not unusual for a school."

Mr Goddard said he had been "incredibly naive" about the amount of interest the programme would generate when he agreed to let 65 cameras be installed in the school. "It has been surreal being recognised in the pub and the street," he said.

He has nothing but praise for the integrity of the documentary team. "It hasn't been damaging for us or for our kids." However, he said he was inclined to reject a second series, an offer the school's governors will consider next month. "I would probably say no, as the risk is it would go from being a documentary to becoming a reality TV show," he said. "Maybe Channel 4 will do Schooling Scousers or Teaching Tynesiders instead."



407 - Number of academies in Jan 2011

1,463 - Number of academies in Dec 2011


62% of all schools were known to be closed on 30 November

13% of schools were partially closed

16% of schools were fully open

57% of academies were closed


24 free schools opened in September 2011

79 new schools were approved to open in 2012

63 of which will be free schools

16 of which will be university technical colleges

Source: Department for Education. Information on closures due to strikes not available for all schools.

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