Bac's the future while

23rd December 2005 at 00:00
A brand new exam took off but the funding fog continued to cause alarm. Michael Shaw, Karen Thornton and Nicola Porter report

It was the year when Turkey Twizzlers were banished and the Welsh education sector congratulated itself on having Jane Davidson rather than Ruth Kelly in charge.

Ms Kelly set the tone for 2005 when she stepped on stage at the North of England conference in January to make her nervous debut speech as Education Secretary. She championed parent power, and said she planned to take a hard look at improving school meals.

Sure enough, the Westminster government later agreed to find an extra Pounds 280 million for lunches and to ban junk food from school canteens and vending machines. Whether this would have happened without celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's TV series is unclear.

The healthy-eating message was tragically reinforced in the south Wales valleys by the E.coli outbreak which claimed the life of five-year-old Mason Jones. Around 160 people - mainly children - and 42 schools were affected. Meanwhile, research suggested that "motivated" parents were more likely to get their kids to school in time for free breakfasts, rather than the parents of those who were really meant to benefit from the Assembly government initiative.

Fans of the Welsh baccalaureate looked on smugly as Westminster ministers rejected Sir Mike Tomlinson's proposal to replace A-levels and GCSEs with a flexible diploma. Ms Kelly told MPs that parents in her Bolton constituency did not like it. Instead, she announced a series of tweaks and add-ons to the existing exams, such as vocational diplomas.

But supporters of the broad-based Welsh bac were put on the back foot by high drop-out rates among the first students to complete the first two-year pilot of the new qualification this summer.

The Welsh Assembly government announced plans for a pilot bac for 14-year-olds, in part to address the drop-out issue.

While the parent-friendly announcements from Westminster were aimed at winning families' votes in May's general elections, the election results forced Labour in Wales into a minority government. Political intrigue and upsets followed as the Assembly government was outvoted on a series of education-related issues, including student fees, school funding and support for small schools.

A united opposition celebrated overturning the government's draft budget plans and imposing a review of the funding fog surrounding school budgets.

But Assembly members were left scratching their heads and crying for help from statisticians, as they tried to do their sums on school funding streams.

The numbers also did not add up on school buildings, with an estimated Pounds 785m backlog of repairs across Wales.

But new Tory education spokesman William Graham provided some light relief by donning a flower in his lapel and signing up Lemmy - legendary rocker from heavy metal band Motorhead - to help him deter Welsh pupils from taking drugs.

The language of heaven generated some of the biggest stories of the year, with a promise in May of three-month sabbaticals for teachers to learn Welsh. But this month, schools in Welsh-speaking areas were accused of "playing the system" to boost exam results by entering mother-tongue speakers for second-language GCSEs.

It was all change in the unions, with the election of Welsh second-language speaker Gruff Hughes as leader of Welsh-medium teachers' union UCAC.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers appointed a former priest as its Welsh director, and the Secondary Heads Association and National Union of Teachers announced the departures next year of their respective secretaries, Brian Rowlands and Gethin Lewis.

Members of the National Association of Head Teachers surprised their union's leadership by voting to pull out of the workforce agreement with the Government. They later rejected the association's official headhunted candidate for general secretary, electing Mick Brookes, a motorbiking primary head, instead.

Longer-distance partnerships were the subject of The TESHSBC Make The Link Awards, which attracted 300 entries from British schools and colleges eager to gain recognition for their collaborative work with peers in other countries.

Teachers across the UK were also busy building links and fundraising for schools affected by October's earthquake in Pakistan and the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in Asia, in which thousands of school staff and pupils lost their lives including three British teachers and a teaching assistant.

Schools also had to help pupils cope with disasters closer to home, including the suicide bombings on London transport which killed 52 people in July.

Comparative normality returned at the end of the summer with the annual row over A-level standards and exam board mess-ups. This year Edexcel was in trouble for using unqualified office staff to mark religious studies GCSE extended writing papers after just 20 minutes' training.

When schools reopened their gates for the autumn term, the main question for teachers was whether they would get their new statutory free time for planning, preparation and assessment.

Some heads warned that providing the compulsory 10 per cent non-teaching time would cause school closures. But these apocalyptic predictions proved unfounded, though the NAHT fears it may still prove unsustainable.

Primary schools piloting the new play-based foundation stage for three to seven-year-olds were dismayed when education and lifelong learning minister Jane Davidson announced a delay in the national roll-out to 2008.

But her rejection of Ruth Kelly's controversial proposals for independent state "trust" schools was widely welcomed.

However, as the year drew to a close, the greater concern in staffrooms was who would face pay cuts when new teaching and learning responsibility points replace management allowances next year.

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