Missed targets and fallen chiefs

20th December 2002 at 00:00
It has been a rocky year for exam marking, criminal records checks, and exclusions, culminating in dramatic exits of familiar faces, writes Biddy Passmore

"EVEN if the Government fails to deliver its promises, Estelle Morris will not be leaving the scene," The TES predicted confidently in January.

Foresight is a wonderful thing. True, the Government failed to meet promises from class sizes to truancy and key stage 2 tests. But Estelle Morris, against all expectations, quit in October, overwhelmed by a series of crises.

So the year ends with a new Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, and a nearly-new junior ministerial team, featuring David Miliband, the ultra-Blairite.

Also new are David Bell, chief schools inspector, and Ken Boston, chief executive at the troubled Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Sir William Stubbs, the QCA's former chairman, departed with an icy display of injured pride (and a furious daughter) after being dismissed over the A-level debacle. Ron McLone, chief executive of beleaguered exam board OCR, looks like hanging on. Mike Tomlinson, former chief inspector, is now charged with sorting out the exams mess.

Assessment has been the chief obsession this year. Devising, revising, taking, marking and re-marking tests, not to mention league tables, absorbed a colossal amount of time, effort and money. Thousands of 11-year-olds were already revising in the autumn for the summer's national tests, and exams and testing now cost more than pound;200 million annually.

The first signs of the exam crisis appeared at the start of the year when ministers lost patience with exam board Edexcel, for letting through blunders in key skills and maths papers, and sent in a QCA troubleshooter to sort it out. But it was another board, OCR, that was at the centre of the later furore over A-levels. The finger of blame was pointed, too, at the Government and the QCA. (see story, far right) The year started well for Estelle Morris with a promise of radical reform to teachers' workload at the North of England conference. But this was followed by a pay rise of just 3.5 per cent.

Ministers refused to give in to demands for a 35-hour week for teachers and by Easter, the three main classroom unions voted for action and an "autumn of chaos" was predicted. It never happened, although there have been two one-day strikes over London allowances, and all but the National Union of Teachers are getting behind government plans for assistants to help cut workloads.

The year saw two of the most vocal teacher union leaders leave: Nigel de Gruchy from the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers and Peter Smith, from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

And there was an early kick in the teeth for Eamonn O'Kane as he took over as new general secretary of the NASUWT, when members threw out the plan for his pet project, a super union for teachers.

During the summer, the nation focused not on exams, but on two little girls in Soham, Cambridgeshire. School caretaker Ian Huntley faces trial for the murder of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in the new year.

The resulting hysteria led to a Department for Education and Skills'

decision, taken in Ms Morris's absence, that no new teachers should be employed until they had been cleared by the Criminal Records Bureau.

The overloaded bureau could not cope and the start of the school year threatened chaos, with 10,000 teachers still awaiting checks.

Ms Morris announced a U-turn, saying teachers could start work as long as they were not on List 99, and was criticised for vacillation.

It was in 2002 that the Government got tough on truancy and street crime. Feckless parents became the new demons, criticised for assaulting teachers and taking children shopping or on holiday during school-time.

The Prime Minister announced a crackdown in 34 high-crime areas, with truancy sweeps and police in 100 secondaries in May, vowing to have street crime under control by September. Some of it was.

Shortly afterwards, Oxfordshire mother Patricia Amos was jailed for 60 days for the persistent truancy of her two daughters. Many long-lost pupils suddenly started turning up at schools all over the country.

But it remains to be seen whether Mrs Amos's jailing will have any long-term effect. The truancy rate appears to be stuck at 0.7 per cent of all half-day sessions where it has remained since 1997.

Exclusions rose and ministers consulted on guidelines saying pupils could be out on their ear for one-off acts of violence or threatened violence. Appeal panels would not be expected to reinstate them. So Ms Morris was horrified to discover in October that two boys at Glyn technology college, Surrey, who had made death threats against a teacher, had been reinstated on appeal. It was widely reported that she had intervened, beyond her powers, to demand they should not go back. It was a further nail in her coffin.

Primary teachers struggled to haul their charges up to the levels required to meet the most significant 2002 target: that 80 per cent of 11-year-olds reach the expected level in English and 75 per cent in maths. A TES survey had shown they would not make it - and they did not. The results of the summer tests showed 73 per cent had reached the required standard in maths (a two-point improvement) and 75 per cent in English (a standstill).

Not many noticed this failure as the A-level furore was at its height, but this was yet another blow to the embattled Education Secretary. As the Tories revealed with glee, Ms Morris had once promised to resign if the targets were not met. Shortly afterward, she did.

What of secondaries? Ms Morris caused huge offence by saying there were some schools she "wouldn't touch with a barge pole" and set out a five-tier "ladder" of secondaries, ranging from untouchables to the most innovative specialist schools. The Prime Minister warmed to the theme but changed the metaphor, announcing in his party conference speech the end of the "one-size-fits-all" comprehensive and an "escalator" of schools.

Charles Clarke, Ms Morris's successor, favoured a "holistic system... based on what the school can do". But that did not stop him joining Tony Blair to announce that all schools would now be able to apply for specialist status, with a special hardship fund for those who could not raise the pound;50,000 sponsorship required. So is the holistic solution the bog-standard specialist school?

As the year turns, the educational issue dominating headlines and middle-class dining tables is not the state of schools but the cost of higher education, specifically top-up fees. Whatever the method - fees, loans or graduate tax - it seems clear middle-class parents and students will have to pay more.

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