Looking back at 2012, another year of upheaval

21st December 2012 at 00:00
From grading scandals to exam revolution, strike threats and the inexorable march of the academies programme, the education world didn't stop turning for a moment in 2012


Education secretary Michael Gove started his year as he meant to go on. He branded those against plans to convert more schools into academies as the "enemies of promise", after staff and parents at Downhills Primary School in North London staged a legal battle to prevent their school from being converted - a battle they later lost. Meanwhile, TES investigated the tricks some schools use to pass their Ofsted inspections, such as organising a trip to Alton Towers for the most disruptive pupils on the day of the inspection - not something that would be condoned by chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, who took up his post in January.


As well as being the year when the world would end, according to the Mayans, 2012 was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, the English author who wrote such weighty tomes that his readers often wondered if the world's conclusion would come before his. But another hefty piece of literature made the headlines this month, as Mr Gove pushed through his plan to send a King James Bible to every school in the country, whether they wanted it or not. Also in February, hit TV show Educating Essex - the Channel 4 documentary series that took a warts-and-all look inside a modern-day comprehensive - was on the hunt for a new school to be the subject of the second series. Only the bravest heads ought to have applied.


The thawing of winter did little to melt the frostiness between the teaching profession and the government. A joint survey between TES and the Association of School and College Leaders showed that happiness among headteachers was at an all-time low, with more than a third stating that they were actively planning to leave the profession. Mr Gove's response? "Man up." Meanwhile, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development released a study hailing UK headteachers as the best in the world. But, being a former journalist, Mr Gove never allows the facts to get in the way of a good story.


April brought the annual union conference season: members of the biggest classroom unions got together to be outraged by the sweeping changes brought in by Mr Gove and his ministers. One of the main gripes to force steam from union bosses' ears was the idea of regionalised pay deals for teachers. And while teachers' leaders were calling for an uprising in Blighty, the NASUWT teaching union was also supporting a dispute in the Middle East. Deputy general secretary Patrick Roach travelled to Bahrain to voice the union's support for a campaign for the release of two teaching union leaders imprisoned during the Arab spring.


The exams industry came under scrutiny, with Ofqual accusing the main exam boards of failing to maintain standards. The watchdog's chief executive, Glenys Stacey, fired off a warning shot, stating that grade inflation was undermining confidence in GCSEs. A few months later, she would find herself accused of doing the same thing. In the meantime, the country was preoccupied with all things regal, as celebrations for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee started to gain momentum.


The extended bank holiday celebrations for the Queen's 60th year on the throne took place on one of the soggiest weekends the UK has ever seen. When everyone had dried off, attention turned back to schools as primary pupils sat the first ever phonics test. Most kids ended up correcting the nonsense words, turning "strom" to "storm", only to be told they couldn't read. Meanwhile, ministers decided they were going to scrap GCSEs and replace them with O levels - but they didn't tell anyone. The news was leaked to that esteemed organ, the Daily Mail.


Unsurprisingly, the revelation went down like a cup of cold sick. Fears were expressed that the changes would bring a return to a two-tier system, with many pupils left without proper qualifications. Even the exam boards told ministers to slow down or risk losing the chance to create a "world-class" exam system. But Mr Gove was busy upsetting chef and school meals campaigner Jamie Oliver. The education secretary commissioned his holiday companions and owners of restaurant chain Leon to review the quality of school dinners, prompting Mr Oliver to accuse him of delaying action. Still, at least the summer holidays had arrived - what could possibly go wrong between now and September?


Summer finally decided to make an appearance in time for the Olympics, and lasted about as long as the two-week event. For a fortnight, the nation went all gooey and lovey-dovey, right up until A-level results day. For the first time in 21 years, the proportion of students gaining top grades fell. Worse was to come, however, with the news that the number of top grades at GCSE also fell for the first time in the exam's history. And then - oh dear - GCSEs became a "fiasco" as efforts by Ofqual to curb grade inflation saw grade boundaries changed mid-way through the year, leaving some pupils with lower than expected grades in English. Cue national outrage.


The outrage continued into the start of the academic year. Mr Gove held up his hands to say it was nothing to do with him, and Ofqual chief executive Ms Stacey said the body was just doing its job. Heads' and teachers' leaders, along with independent schools and local authorities, established an "alliance" as if they were characters in Star Wars. This alliance later succeeded in forcing a judicial review of GCSE grading, and then went on to destroy the Death Star. Meanwhile, Prime Minister David Cameron reshuffled his ministers: in came David Laws, Edward Timpson and Liz Truss; out went Sarah Teather, Nick Gibb and Tim Loughton. Lord Hill tried to quit but his resignation fell on deaf ears.


TES revealed the extent to which pupils are being affected by internet pornography, giving a whole new meaning to the word "brainy" - turns out it has little to do with IQ. A TES survey showed that three-quarters of teachers believed easy access to online porn was having a damaging effect on their pupils. Elsewhere, the GCSE marking "fiasco" became a "farrago".


The majority of Americans decided that the idea of Mitt Romney as president was silly. Back on these fair shores, unrest was growing as the NUT and NASUWT teaching unions pitched themselves in direct conflict with headteachers, taking work-to-rule industrial action over pensions, pay and working conditions. And while an unholy row was looming between heads and their staff, even unholier guidance was issued to schools, effectively dropping Jesus from collective worship. None of this bothered staff at Holland Park School in West London, however - they were too busy enjoying their new #163;80 million building, complete with a "housekeeper" serving them daily meals.


In fact, the world didn't end in 2012 (at least, not by the time TES went to press) and neither did the dominant education story of the past few months. Judges sitting in, erm, judgment on the GCSE grading case postponed their decision until the new year. Chancellor George "Scrooge" Osborne announced in his Autumn Statement that teachers' pay levels would be linked to performance, paving the way for yet more uncertainty in 2013, with nationwide strikes looking distinctly likely. The news certainly ensured all would have a very merry Christmas break. Bah humbug, indeed.

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