Don't look down - and try to keep a sense of balance

9th September 2011 at 01:00
Analysis - With a new academic year upon us and the Coalition's education policies tightening their grip, William Stewart looks at what is in store for schools

It has become as much of a cliche as the annual debate over grade inflation. But, once again, teachers are about to experience another year of change. The coalition Government has had a busy 16 months setting out its educational stall. Now, from new-style inspections to free schools and scrapped quangos, 201011 will see many of its policies start to take effect.

Top of the list in terms of impact must be vast expansion of the academies scheme. It may have as much to do with the extra money as anything else, but since September 2010 more than 1,000 schools have become academies. There are now 1,300 open, with more to follow, in a major reshaping of the schools system.

As The TES reported last month, the Government intends to claw back #163;1 billion from local authority education budgets so that the new "converter" academies have enough money to pay for services previously provided by the authorities.

That could have big implications for schools without academy status that still rely on council services, especially as the Department for Education (DfE) could take some of the money from authorities where there are no new academies. The explosion in numbers will dramatically accelerate the decline of town halls' role in education and all schools are likely to feel the effect.

So far, academies have been slow to make full use of their freedoms over teacher pay and conditions and the curriculum. But this could be the year when the huge rise in their numbers starts to unravel the national teacher pay system - a potential nightmare for unions, who could have to negotiate numerous individual deals.

It will also be an important 12 months for the national curriculum, even though huge numbers of state schools will now be able to opt out, thanks to academy status.

A radical DfE-led review, which aims to effectively start from scratch, is due to issue draft programmes of study in English, maths, science and PE in early 2012. The aim is to strip the national curriculum down to "essential" knowledge, so controversy is assured.

Proposals on which of the eight non-core subjects should remain in the compulsory curriculum are expected around the same time and should prove equally contentious. Citizenship is a favourite to go.

In previous years the review would have been conducted by the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA). But the Coventry-based body will continue to be wound down this autumn, with abolition expected early in 2012.

Joining it on the Coalition's bonfire of the quangos will be the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA), the General Teaching Council for England (GTC), the Young People's Learning Agency (YPLA) and Partnerships for Schools (PfS) - all of which will disappear in April. The School Support Staff Negotiating Body will go "at the earliest opportunity".

By the summer, an Education Funding Agency should have replaced the YPLA and PfS, while a new Teaching Agency will take over some TDA, GTC and QCDA functions.

But for that to happen the Education Bill will first have to complete its passage through Parliament and gain Royal Assent. Some commentators believe ministers will be lucky if it is achieved by Christmas.

Many teachers will no doubt be disappointed that Ofsted has escaped the quango cull. But there will be big changes here, too. This month the inspectorate begins "dawn raids" - no-notice visits to schools with behaviour problems. The Government's new behaviour "tsar", Charlie Taylor, believes some schools could have been ensuring their most difficult pupils are absent, or being taught by very experienced staff, when inspectors arrive.

The unannounced monitoring visits will take place in some of the 500 or so schools judged to be "satisfactory" overall, with behaviour that is satisfactory or worse. A trial starting with a limited number of schools this term will be extended if judged successful.

And from January there will be an even bigger change when a completely new school inspection framework is introduced - with potentially devastating results.

Confidential Ofsted documents seen by The TES suggest that more than 5,300 schools with below-average test results will be placed in special measures or given a notice to improve unless they can show they are "closing the gap" with the national average.

The new framework will see inspections focus on four key areas - pupil achievement, quality of teaching, leadership and management, and the behaviour and safety of pupils - in place of the 27 categories that schools are currently assessed on.

Schools judged to be outstanding are already being exempted from regular inspections. But former chief inspector Christine Gilbert expressed reservations about the Government idea before her departure from Ofsted in July. Reports showed that, historically, 43 per cent of outstanding schools had slipped back by their next inspection, she said.

American educationalists are understood to have featured on ministers' wish list for the new chief inspector. On the domestic front, Sir Michael Barber, the policy adviser who introduced Labour's numeracy and literacy hours, is said to have turned the job down. But Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of the feted Mossbourne Academy in east London, is believed to be a contender.

He is likely to be a prominent figure in the coming year with or without the Ofsted job, thanks to his role as education director at Ark Schools, one of ministers' favourite academy chains. The influence of such organisations can only grow as they become privately run education authorities.

The other side of education secretary Michael Gove's revolution in school governance will come under a more immediate spotlight as the first 24 free schools open their doors this term. Academies may have the bigger impact, but it is this Swedish-inspired scheme that will get the media attention, so any teething problems in the early months are likely to face the full glare of publicity.

Ministers' decision to accept the Bew review's recommendation and abolish national writing tests for 11-year-olds from 2013 will probably mean they avoid a repeat of the 2010 Sats boycott. But heads' union the NAHT, which took the action with the NUT, is unhappy about the introduction of a new test of spelling, punctuation and grammar. So, talks with the Government this academic year will be crucial.

All state-funded schools will be under a financial cosh. The deal Mr Gove won from chancellor George Osborne may amount to a real-terms funding increase for schools. But for heads and governors used to years of much fatter settlements it will not feel like one, and teaching job cuts are a real possibility.

Many sixth-formers and FE college students may also be on their uppers as they have to start the new term without an education maintenance allowance.

But amid all the gloom over dawn raids, redundancies, budget squeezes and boycotts, teachers can take solace in one piece of good news. Next week sees the first issue of a brand new, upmarket TES, with more incisive news, analysis and features than ever. Enjoy.

Industrial action

Get set for strikes

Further strike action across teaching unions looks likely, providing the ongoing talks with ministers over unpopular changes to teachers' pensions fail to lead to an agreement. Any action would probably take place in the week beginning 7 November.

The NUT, ATL and UCU took part in the earlier strike in June, and would probably be joined by the NASUWT, which already has a mandate to ballot its members on a strike. Of the heads' unions, the NAHT has already committed to balloting its members, while the ASCL is set to consult its members on taking some form of industrial action, should the Government negotiations founder.

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