Long march to the middle ground

23rd December 1994 at 00:00
Conflict slowly gave way to consensus as 1994 progressed. Jeremy Sutcliffe reports on a year in which the national curriculum shed pounds while Labour and the Conservatives shed many of their differences.

The year 1994 may come to be seen by educational historians as the time when the political weather changed; when six years of Tory radicalism came to an end and the Labour party, under a new leader, embraced much of the Government's agenda, promising consumer choice and talking tough on standards. A new political consensus, based on a mutual desire to woo the parent vote, seems to be emerging. But will the teaching profession buy it?

As the country sweltered under an unusually hot - and sometimes thundery - July two events characterised the changing political climate. Out went the hapless and accident-prone John Patten in a Cabinet reshuffle intended to put in place John Major's team to fight the next general election. And (following the death of John Smith in May) Labour's new leader, Tony Blair, immediately invited grant-maintained schools to put the case for remaining independent.

His remarks spelled a return to a "modernising" agenda for Labour's education policy after two years under Ann Taylor. The "traditionalist" Taylor had won backing from socialist teachers and the unions for her dislike of league tables and insistence that grant-maintained schools should be taken back into local council control, but was already out of favour for failing to out-punch the unpopular Patten. She was soon replaced by one of Labour's heavyweights, David Blunkett.

As Blunkett began the task of reshaping some of his predecessor's key policies, his opposite number, the new Education Secretary Gillian Shephard, was already announcing policy U-turns of her own. Her reputation as one of the Prime Minister's most trusted colleagues enabled her to break free of the Tory radicals who had strongly influenced Patten and his predecessor, Kenneth Clarke, and adopt a more pragmatic and conciliatory approach. Within months, she had confirmed a delay in the introduction of 11-plus league tables, an end to the ban on LEA schools competing for technology grants, and further concessions on school English.

Blunkett meanwhile, despite his credentials as a man of the Left with a background in local government, rapidly established himself as a Blair loyalist, putting Labour enthusiastically behind regular testing and the publication of exam results. He now wants to supplement them with new school effectiveness (value-added) measures, which both he and Blair believe form a better basis for comparing schools.

While Labour seeks to put flesh on the bones of a policy likely to produce a new role for LEAs, the Government has played down the failure of opting out to take off. The slowdown which began in 1993 has now become a trickle. With just over l,000 GM schools out of around 30,000 in England and Wales ministers now acknowledge that LEAs are here to stay for the foreseeable future and, under Shephard, have extended and olive branch. A more immediate threat to the LEAs, namely their break-up through the Government's local government review process, receded as Sir John Banham's commission turned its back on a general move to single-tier authorities.

As 1994 ends, therefore, the education scene, aided by the completion of Sir Ron Dearing's national curriculum review which ushers in a five-year period of consolidation, looks less turbulent than for some years. But if the signs were there a year ago, John Patten's continued presence at the Department for Education had meant no one could be sure what would happen.

The year began with Patten embarking upon a further round of legislation, with a Bill to set up a new teacher-training agency to push through the Government's switch to school-based training. A controversial plan to establish a "Mum's Army" of non-graduate early-years teachers had been dropped before Christmas, but the Education Secretary appeared determined to carry through his promise to end the so-called student union "closed shop". In the event the measure had few friends in either the universities or - more importantly - the House of Lords, and it was dropped.

Patten's hopes of survival were largely pinned on the success of Sir Ron's review, which reported in January to a mixed response from teachers. Nigel de Gruchy, whose National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers had led the revolt against the excessive workload, hailed the report as a victory. But the National Union of Teachers, alone among the unions, refused to abandon its boycott of key stage tests, maintaining its argument that they were flawed and should not be used as a basis for league tables.

Perhaps surprisingly, the NUT's defiance went unchallenged by the Government, despite extensive disruption of testing for both 14 and seven-year-olds (often with tacit support from heads, governors and parents). Pilot tests for 11-year-olds were also hit. Ministers announced a Pounds 30 million plan to employ external markers and provide supply cover in an attempt to guarantee that the tests go ahead next year. So concerned were they about being out of touch with governors that they also decided to help fund a new National Governors Council, founded in October.

Meanwhile, the mammoth Dearing consultation trundled on, with heated discussions over the revised curriculum Orders. In May, a group of eight teachers and an adviser appointed to the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's 18-member English advisory group criticised Sir Ron for ignoring their advice and pressing ahead with plans to emphasise Standard English and for a compulsory list of authors. They were joined the following week by the entire 11-member primary working group which criticised Dearing's stress on Standard English for seven-year-olds, against their advice.

Such ructions, commonplace just a year earlier, were comparatively rare however, with Sir Ron steering a skilful path between the competing demands of the professionals and politicians, isolating some of the more extreme voices on the radical Right in the process.

If Patten had reason to be grateful to Sir Ron for cooling temperatures in the classroom, he did not help himself when, during the local government elections in May, he inadvertently released details of a private opinion poll showing Labour holding a 21-point lead. No matter that the poll also showed overwhelming public support for school tests and league tables, the "gaffe" underlined the Tories' unpopularity and increased the clamour for Cabinet heads to roll.

Another serious blow to Patten's career came the following month when he was forced to make a humiliating apology and pay substantial damages to Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's director of education, whom he had famously called a "nutter" and a "madman" at a Tory party conference fringe meeting the year before.

A month later and he was gone, his short Cabinet career over. If he was rumoured to be bitter about his abrupt dismissal most people, Tories and teachers alike, breathed a sigh of relief. His replacement, Gillian Shephard, quickly established a different style, going out of her way to listen to teachers, LEA officials and her own civil servants.

Shephard's appointment speeded up attempts, begun a year before, to restore relations with education professionals and smoothed the way for further concessions on the curriculum, notably on Standard English and book lists. Sir Ron produced the final version in November, bringing to an end an 18-month exercise conceived at the height of last year's testing rebellion. Intended to slim down the curriculum and pacify angry and overworked teachers, his work has already brought results.

But there is still a long way to go before final judgment can be made and it's still unclear whether sufficient "free" time has been created for the promised optional subjects. The Government, too, is in trouble over its promise to introduce vocational alternatives to the GCSE, with advisers split on whether the new courses should contain more written tests to run alongside assessed coursework.

It was an important year for the under-fives lobby with a pledge by John Major to provide nursery places for all four-year-olds whose parents want them. A task group, due to report in the New Year, is looking at the options. With Labour also planning its own expansion, the issue is likely to climb up the political agenda next year.

"Standards" continued to make news with the Office for Standards in Education publishing its first reports on "failing" schools. The new privatised system of inspections came under pressure with OFSTED failing to hit its first targets for visiting primaries. As the year ends, the Government commitment to inspect all schools within four years is in doubt. Blunkett, meanwhile, wants parents to see Labour as the party of high standards and is looking at ways of helping, as well as identifying, underperforming schools.

The Government's difficulties over the accountability of public bodies focused attention on appointments to the growing list of education quangos, whose ranks were swelled in 1994 by the Funding Agency for Schools and the Teacher Training Agency. Both drew criticism for being packed with Government supporters. In April Michael Collier, chief executive of the new funding agency, said its brief was to defend the ideas of GM schools. Concern about accountability surfaced too in the further education sector, with two colleges, Derby Tertiary College, Wilmorton, and St Philip's Sixth-form College in Birmingham, subjected to damning criticism for mismanagement after official inquiries The year was punctuated by many other events, notably Blair's surprise choice of a Catholic GM school eight miles from the family home in Islington for his eldest son. The decision dramatically highlighted Labour's increased emphasis on choice, but left him in difficulties with party loyalists whose unease was only increased when details of the school's selective admissions criteria emerged.

With the main political parties now battling for the middle ground in education consensus is now on the agenda. The big question is whether teachers - the producers - will fall in with the consumer-minded politicians. Concerns about league tables and tests still seem set to breed unhappiness next year despite the NUT's decision to ballot members with a view to calling off its boycott in the New Year. A 2.9 per cent pay rise in April failed to keep pace with average increases and predictions of another tight pay round next year - the third year running - will not encourage the profession to fall in line.

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