Billions, beacons and Blunkett;Review of the year

25th December 1998 at 00:00
Nicolas Barnard reports on a year in which New Labour went into overdrive with educational initiatives.

NINETEEN billion pounds, 12,000 policy initiatives, 170 beacon schools, 25 action zones, four knighted heads, two Education Acts, one literacy hour. And a Green Paper in a pear tree.

It's been that kind of year in education. If 1997 saw New Labour setting out its stall, 1998 saw it go into overdrive and give everybody initiative-itis. Yet there's a feeling the year has been largely spent putting machinery in place and the results are still to come. It's becoming rather tantalising.

So we got the literacy hour, the National Year of Reading and the first cuts in class sizes - good starts, but it will be a while before we see the impact on standards. We've had the first zones - but their first term has been spent setting up, and ministers are disappointed at a lack of radicalism.

We've had two education Acts which inter alia heralded the end of grant-maintained schools, introduced ballots on selection, a General Teaching Council, tuition fees and more. Again, their impact will largely be felt in the next two years.

Crucially, 1998 saw the end of the Treasury's comprehensive spending review, its lengthy deliberations on the state of the finances it inherited from the Tories. At the end of the bidding, Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett had won pound;19bn to spend over three years.

Astonishingly, by December, he had allocated all bar pound;1bn of it (most of it announced at least three times already). But none of it will get spent until April.

A busy year behind the scenes, then. And a year that has been a peculiar mix of liberalisation and control freakery.

In teacher training, universities were set a national curriculum for the first time. New local authority funding arrangements will see more money go directly to schools - yet the increased use of bidding means more decisions taken in Whitehall.

Teachers saw the primary curriculum relaxed, and key stage 4 reshaped to allow 14-year-olds to spend time in college or at work. Yet the message they were given - not accidentally - was of more control, with literacy and maths hours apparently prescribing the way they teach (in fact, they don't).

Indeed, the education world may be starting to suffer from overload as a "joined-up" Government pursues social as well as educational reform to prove its left-wing colours.

So we saw action on drugs, truancy and exclusions, curfews and youth offending teams, a national childcare strategy and the Sure Start programme for under-threes from deprived families.

Local authorities were inspected (to inevitable controversy in Birmingham and Manchester), benchmarks issued to schools, value-added ratings issued and scrapped, citizenship lessons planned, and bridges built between private and state schools. The first serving heads were knighted (two Sirs and two Dames), teacher-training league tables were introduced and ministers launched a belated attempt to address the impending teacher-recruitment crisis.

It has been a continual balancing act - ministers pursuing their standards-raising crusade while keeping teachers on board with a range of gestures such as teaching Oscars, lap-tops, redesigned staff rooms and a round of applause at the Labour party conference.

Until July's reshuffle, schools minister Stephen Byers was bad cop to Mr Blunkett's good one, rattling the stick of reform at those who don't shape up - though the Education Secretary is capable of reading the riot act occasionally, as he showed at the National Union of Teachers' conference at Easter. Estelle Morris, Byers' promoted successor, is an ex-teacher and more friendly.

Local authorities, in response, largely grabbed the chance to secure their future by getting on board. In their action zone bids they largely squeezed out business competition. Teaching unions were less compliant - particularly after seeing their inflation-only pay rise phased - and forced the Government to act more quickly on bureaucracy with a brief work-to-rule campaign.

Still, when it comes to opposition, the unions are about all Labour has got. At Westminster, the Tories replaced one education spokesman few people ever heard from with another one.

So who came off best in 1998? Winner of the year seemed, again, to be Chris Woodhead. The chief inspector of schools started with a points victory in an aggressive encounter with the House of Commons' education select committee; continued by stomping across the briefs of rival quangocrats with pronouncements on teacher training and the curriculum; and ended up with not only a new contract but a whopping pay rise. He rounded it all off last week with a savage swipe at national curriculum tests.

At least he already has to put up with performance-related pay. And he faces a rematch with the select committee, which - unfazed by the Government's patronage (the Prime Minister was rumoured to be behind his reappointment) - went ahead with its inquiry into the Office for Standards in Education.

The other clear winner was Mr Byers who, after a year of pushing New Labour's "Third Way" in education, taking on the vested interests of unions and councils and, ahem, getting his tables wrong, duly ascended to the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

Which of course gives him much more control over education than he ever had at the DFEE - luckily for him, as his interest in it seems hardly to have waned. Expect some interesting tussles in 1999.

Leader, page 12

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