A stability that seems to keep changing

30th December 1994 at 00:00
Biddy Passmore looks ahead to 1995. Welcome to the first of John Major's five years of stability in education: to a year with no educational legislation, no reviews of the curriculum and no change of Education Secretary - unless there is a general election.

Unfortunately, it will not feel like that. The continuous revolution of the past few years has spawned enough changes to keep the education system on its toes for a good while yet.

When Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, rises to address the North of England Conference early next month, she may be clutching one of the main elements of change in her hot little hand: the final version of the slimmed down curriculum for 5 to 14-year-olds to be introduced in schools next autumn.

Teachers have already received typescripts of the 11 new curriculum Orders and will get the published documents early in the New Year. Now all they have do is work out how to implement them: revise their teaching plans yet again to cut out the surplus material, take a new look at their pupils with level descriptions rather than statements of attainment in mind, and turn those tick-lists into paper darts. At least they know that this time there will - probably - be no further revisions for five years.

Schools will also have to decide what to do with all the alleged "spare time": the day a week meant to have been liberated by Sir Ron Dearing's review at key stages 1, 2 and 3. Could this mean frivolous Fridays?

At key stage 4, discontent among English teachers about the Government's ban on 100 per cent coursework in GCSE is likely to rumble on. Education ministers are due to pronounce on changes in the balance between coursework and exams in the New Year.

Now that the curriculum is largely settled, the spotlight is likely to turn elsewhere: perhaps, first, to the vexed issue of parental choice. The Conservatives' talisman has now become a matter of dispute within the Labour party. Its education spokesman David Blunkett has to tread a fine line between sticking to the old neighbourhood comprehensive ideal and pleasing parents, including his leader, Tony Blair. The flood of new grant-maintained schools has slowed to a trickle but might pick up again if Labour, as now seems likely, agrees not to abolish them but to bring them within a "local democratic framework". Surplus schools, meanwhile, stay open because councils fear a rush to opting out if they propose closure. And the inhabitants of places such as the London Borough of Kingston find they cannot get their children into the local schools because parents from elsewhere have chosen them. Readers of runes will be examining Mr Blunkett's New Year speeches on comprehensive education.

The inspection system will be at the centre of the educational stage next year. The Office for Standards in Education's annual report, due in January, will be followed by consultation on changes to the inspection framework. Predictably enough, a framework devised for secondary schools appears to be unsuited to primary and special schools. Changes will be implemented as soon as possible which, because of contracting arrangements, probably means January 1996.

Mrs Shephard will also decide in the spring whether OFSTED can really hope to comply with its legal duty of inspecting all 18,000 primaries within four years. So far, lack of inspectors and the complexity of the inspection process have produced a substantial backlog. If the Education Secretary decides to move to a longer cycle, she will need to get Parliament's approval.

John Gummer, the Environment Secretary, will also need Parliament's approval for local government changes that could prove more unsettling to the education service than anything else: the reorganisation of some counties into unitary authorities.

He would need to get the Orders through Parliament by mid-March to clear the way for May elections to the shadow authorities that would start work 11 months later. The only areas where the new unitary authorities could be in place by April 1996 are Avon, Cleveland, Humberside, North Yorkshire, Bedfordshire, Hampshire and Buckinghamshire. Will Mr Gummer really go ahead with this or will he decide to leave well alone?

In special education, local authorities' struggles to contain costs while schools attempt to abide by the new Code of Practice will become more acute. The requirements to complete statements within six months and call more frequently on educational psychologists and speech therapists may be unrealistic, especially when money is so short.

The early months of the year should also see a leap in public standards of speaking and writing, when the Education Secretary announces details of her campaign for good English. Will there be national spelling competitions? Posters instructing the public in the use of the apostrophe? The Department for Education is not yet to be drawn on the matter.

One possibility - a public speaking competition - could enliven the Easter break. How about the Shephard prize for the pithiest, most grammatically correct and most perfectly pronounced contribution by a speaker at a teacher union conference?

There will be plenty to be pithy about. Debate within the National Union of Teachers will still be raging over the boycott of the national curriculum tests. With the introduction of tests at 11-plus this summer, the issue has particular resonance, whether or not the membership votes, as recommended, to call off its boycott in January.

The union conferences will take place against a backdrop of unusually tight council budgets. "It's going to be very bleak for most local education authorities," says Ivor Widdison of the Council of Local Education Authorities gloomily. "Discretionary" areas, like student awards and the already stricken youth service, are likely to bear the brunt again.

The Government estimates that councils should be spending some Pounds 17 billion on education in the financial year starting next April. This would represent a 1.1 per cent increase - except that, in most authorities, capping means they cannot raise spending by more than 0.5 per cent.

Mrs Shephard has sent these figures to the School Teachers' Review Body, adding helpfully that pay increases should be offset by efficiency savings. The teacher unions have said the pay review body must show its mettle and independence by recommending a "realistic" award. Hard to see how the poor review body, when it makes its recommendation at the end of next month, can do other than displease both local authorities and teachers. Local authorities, after years of raiding the reserves, would have to fund anything other than a nominal pay-rise through cuts in staff and services, especially since they have an extra 110,000 pupils to accommodate. Teachers will be thinking about inflation rising to an estimated 3.6 per cent by the year's end.

While councils and governors contend with the harsh realities of money and job losses, central government will be on a higher plane of being. The Education Secretary and her ministers and officials will be considering the two ends of the educational spectrum: pre-school provision and higher education.

The under-fives task group in the Department for Education is working on the aim announced by the Prime Minister at the last Conservative party conference: to provide nursery places for all four-year-olds whose parents want them. Mr Major made it clear that he wanted the additional provision to be of high quality and "targeted in a way that expands, and does not crowd out, the private and voluntary provision".

The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and OFSTED have already been asked to come up with proposals for curriculum guidelines, which are likely to go out for consultation at the end of January. Many under-fives teachers fear the Government will put too much stress on academic learning at the expense of play.

The Government is by no means alone in looking at provision for the under fives. The Labour party has identified them as one of four main areas for study over the next year (the others are further and higher education, youth policy, and school effectiveness). The under-fives have never had so much attention. Will it be good for them?

As for higher education, the issues being considered within the Department for Education are of the most fundamental kind. Outlining the review after dinner at the vice-chancellors' conference in October, Mrs Shephard said she wanted it to address questions like: "What is the purpose of higher education - what is it for? How should it support society in general? What role should it play in underpinning a modern, competitive economy?" Tim Boswell, the higher education minister, will be chairing seminars of senior officials to ponder these matters and many from the world of higher education will be consulted.

But the conclusions of the review will not be published so the great British public may never know the answers. Meanwhile the Labour party seems about to grasp the nettle and go for a graduate tax, which could become an important pre-election issue.

In further education, ministers have already decided on the priorities and colleges will be under tremendous pressure in 1995 to put them into practice. Funding will be skewed to boost recruitment among under-achievers and 16- year-old school drop-outs.

But that is just the start. Colleges must also think about new strategies for the next phase of expansion, after 1995-96.

Sir William Stubbs, chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council, has made it clear that they can expect no extra cash from the Treasury unless they show ministers that they are targeting effectively the adult population and, in particular, part-timers training for jobs essential to economic growth.

If colleges think they have been under pressure for the past two years, they will find little let-up in 1995. More than any other year, it is likely to be remembered as "The Year of Performance Measures", when the near-completion of the inspections programme will spawn numerous reports comparing achievements.

Staff management will also be a tough challenge, as colleges try to achieve flexible working practices with new contracts for lecturers - and finally face up to the need for redundancies where they have failed to meet student expansion targets.

Schoolteachers face a summer of preparing for the new curriculum. School-leavers, on the other hand, will be fretting away their summer waiting for A-level results. If this year's applications process is anything to go by, all who are suitably qualified should get a place in higher education, either in the first round or in clearing. There are signs that sixth-formers, perhaps encouraged by this year's experience, are turning their backs on the colleges of higher education, the traditional fallback option, and applying exclusively to universities.

For those applying next autumn, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) has just agreed to cut the number of institutions to which candidates apply from eight to six. And there is a strong possibility that they may be able to apply next year using an electronic admissions process, where schools would send applications direct through the computer or on floppy disks. UCAS hopes that, among other benefits, a computerised system will get rid of the flawed applications with which UCAS currently has to deal: the 8 per cent who get their date of birth wrong, for instance, or the 8 per cent who apply for a course that doesn't exist.

So now we know what they teach students at university: how to fill in application forms properly . . .

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