Bedroom blues and political shenanigans

22nd December 2006 at 00:00
Heads were too tired for sex, the PM promised the baccalaureate for all and a teaching assistant lost her job for wearing a veil

NO WONDER headteachers were too tired for sex.

This was the year several school leaders reported they were too exhausted to drive safely or indulge in bedroom antics.

For secondary school heads, one cause of stress was the wobbling tower of qualifications that ministers continued to build, fuelled by fears of falling standards.

No exam seemed too ambitious, with discussions taking place over the Cambridge pre-U exam, diplomas, the International Baccalaureate, and revamped A-levels and GCSE, among others.

The Prime Minister promised that teenagers in every authority would be able to do the baccalaureate by 2010, adding to the glut of new awards.

The key element of the baccalaureate's appeal may have been its breadth.

But specialisation remained a popular approach. The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) gained yet more converts to its empire, while Mill Hill school decided to appoint a head of golf. Even the film-maker Guy Ritchie joined in the drive for specialist courses, suggesting that teachers give pupils classes in "how to hustle".

One man who did not need any hustling lessons was the new Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, who sauntered into the post wearing his shades.

Acres of newsprint have been expended on his supposed political ambitions beyond education.

But was Mr Johnson's success more to do with his uncanny knack for saying nothing at all in moments of crisis? Critics sneered when pressure from churches forced him to drop plans to make schools accept 25 per cent of pupils from other faiths.

However, anyone who helped get the controversial education and inspections bill through parliament deserved an A for effort. The divisive measures included setting up independent trust schools and handing more power to parents. They prompted the normally mild-mannered Estelle Morris, a former education secretary, and other Labour backbenchers, to revolt. The Government ended up relying on the Tories to get the measures through - cue gloating from the opposition leader David Cameron.

There was less cause for smugness over the cash for honours row, in which politicians from both sides of the house were questioned over allegations that tycoons were obtaining peerages in return for huge loans that were never repaid.

The scandal proved particularly embarrassing for Des Smith, a former headteacher and SSAT council member, who was caught promising an undercover reporter that businessmen could bag a place in the Lords by sponsoring an academy. "I pretended I knew something I did not," he said later. "What I did on that occasion was 'big myself up', to use a phrase schoolchildren use."

By sheer coincidence his dining companion happened to be twentysomething and female.

However, the biggest controversy of 2006 involved Aishah Azmi, a part-time teaching assistant at Headfield Church of England junior school in Dewsbury. The revelation that she had been sacked for insisting on wearing a veil in front of male colleagues added to an inflammatory row over whether Muslim women should wear the niqab in Britain.

Tony Blair backed the school and called the veil a "mark of separation". Ms Azmi's lawyer replied that, while adults relied on stereotypes, children tended "to accept people as they are".

On the whole, teachers appeared a tolerant lot. Two thirds of those polled by The TES felt schools should be allowed to teach intelligent design in science lessons - not necessarily because they were Christian evangelists or creationists, but because they believed in open debate.

The findings emerged as a campaign group called Truth in Science sent teaching materials to schools urging them to put God on an equal footing with Darwin when it came to lessons on evolution. Fine, replied some cheeky science teachers. But, in the interests of fairness, shouldn't we teach Richard Dawkins in RE?

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