Labour battleship lies on the horizon

3rd January 1997 at 00:00
Tony Blair's three priorities for 1997 are the election, the election and the election. John Major's are the same, but in a different order.

Election fever started on day one of the new year. Mr Major can look forward to grappling with the loss of his overall majority, dissent from his own Euro-sceptic wing and the breakdown in parliamentary co-operation between the parties. Mr Blair can look forward to the first sniff of real power for his party in 18 years - as long as he can keep his troops disciplined and free from gaffes.

The date of the election will have a direct bearing on the future of the nursery voucher scheme which is set to become nationwide in April. Labour has said it will scrap the scheme, but will honour any vouchers that are issued if it gets into government after the launch date. Anti-nursery voucher groups will today lobby the London offices of Capita, who are administering the scheme.

As the manifestos are being written, the Tories are under pressure to come up with fresh ideas for education, although it is expected that the state of the economy will be the main plank of their election campaign. David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman (who will almost certainly keep the job if Tony Blair becomes prime minister), will be expected to put more flesh on some of his policy documents.

The Labour party's literacy task force, led by Michael Barber, professor of education and dean of new initiatives at London University's Education Institute, will report in April and the Labour party will also be giving some more details on its plans for teacher training.

The Education Bill for England and Wales, to introduce more selection, give more powers to grant-maintained schools and increase discipline measures, will continue to wind its way through Parliament. The book is open as to whether it will be passed fully.

James Pawsey, chairman of the Conservative backbench education committee, has pledged to bring back his call for the reintroduction of corporal punishment, as part of home-school contracts, for debate in the House of Commons, although he will not have the support of the Government.

Whether the election is held in late March or early May, one event for debate will be the publication for the first time of primary school league tables in February (though not in Scotland). This step is certain to turn the spotlight once again on primary school standards.

It will be goodbye to Sir Ron Dearing, who ends his tenure as chair of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, and welcome to his review of higher education later in the year. The Government's urbane troubleshooter will remain a member of the authority, having handed over the chairmanship to Graham Mackenzie, his deputy, on January 1.

In Scotland the new Scottish Qualificatio ns Authority, which brings together the Scottish Examination Board and the Scottish Vocational Education Council, starts work on April 1 under its chief executive, Ron Tuck, mastermind of the programme to reform the Highers.

The smart money is on Nick Tate, SCAA's chief executive, to head the merger with the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, forming a new qualifications and curriculum authority later in the year.

SCAA, which has been beavering away on benchmarking and national targets, should be ready by February to give each school a template so it can make comparisons with other schools. It will also be concentrating on the new national curriculum for the year 2000.

The national curriculum for teacher training is expected to be released early in 1997, and there will be a further raft of inspections of primary initial teacher training institutions, focusing on literacy and numeracy. The Teacher Training Agency will reveal its new qualification for headteachers in the autumn and will continue working on a subject leader grade for the following year.

What 1997 holds for Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, whose controversial stewardship has caused private unease among Labour leaders, is cause for much speculation. But he has two years of his contract to run, and David Blunkett and Tony Blair may be reluctant to move someone who has built up a reputation for taking a tough line on standards.

At the end of the month, the School Teachers' Review Body will deliver its report. The review body is under pressure from the Government to keep pay low and Gillian Shephard, Education Secretary, has told Tony Vineall, its chairman, that any pay rise will have to be met by efficiency savings.

Local authorities are bracing themselves for another round of education cuts and rising class sizes, irrespective of the teachers' settlement: they claim Mrs Shephard's so-called 3.6 per cent increase for schools is in reality a cut of #163;41 per pupil because councils already spend #163;750 million more on schools than the Government allows for.

Chris Trinder, chief economist of the Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accountancy, predicts the review body will use the forthcoming election as leverage. It will want to take a long-term view of the need for recruitment and retention, and Mr Trinder predicts up to 10,000 teacher posts could be lost if the Government accepts in full a competitive pay offer the review body may feel it needs.

From April 1 the local authority associations will merge to form the Local Government Association. Its education officer will be David Whitbread, education officer of the Association of County Councils.

For the teacher unions the issue most pressing at the end of 1996 was the proposed change in pension regulations, which will shift the burden of the costs of early retirement to local authorities, schools and colleges.

With their offices receiving up to 2,000 calls a week from members, the issue is set to run and run. The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers predicts early retirement may double this year to meet the March 31 deadline - and could leave a shortage of staff in the summer term.

The winner of the bid to become the nation's national sports academy, a #163;1 billion project to train and teach budding sporting champions, is to be announced in March.

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