Now for a year of action;Briefing;Analysis

8th May 1998 at 01:00
As the anniversary celebrations fade Jeremy Sutcliffe looks ahead to Labour's plans for the next 12 months

So what happens next? After 12 months in power the Government is on course to complete its major legislative programme for schools and colleges. In the coming months, the focus will shift from strategic planning to action. What will this shift feel like?

Perhaps the most welcome move, likely to be greeted with a huge sigh of relief from teachers, is that there will be no new education legislation in the next year - and quite possibly none of significance for the rest of this Parliament.

No one should be surprised at this. The changes which will flow from the two Bills - on school standards, teaching and higher education - are considerable and will take years to implement.

The most obvious area where change will be felt will be in the early years. From September, a quarter of those infant schools which have been forced to teach classes of more than 30 should no longer have to do so. The new term should also see the fulfilment of Labour's pledge to offer nursery places to all four-year-olds.

Big changes will be felt in primaries with the introduction of the literacy hour, the centrepiece for improving reading standards.

Phasing in the twin strategy on numeracy will take longer. A report is expected to reach David Blunkett's desk in June, with details likely to be published in July. This will be followed in the autumn with the guidance on mental arithmetic strategies from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, delayed from the spring. It will be introduced in schools in September next year, after training for maths coordinators, heads and governors.

A centrepiece of the flagship school standards Bill is the proposal to set up education action zones to tackle underachievement in the country's most deprived areas. The first 12 are due to start operating in September, with 13 more to follow in January.

It is here that changes in the educational landscape are likely to be most marked. An indication of the priority attached to them has come with Mr Blunkett's announcement that the programme will be expanded to 100 action zones by the next election (see below).

The Government will also be pushing to extend the growing specialist schools sector - a policy it has adopted from the previous Conservative administration, despite criticism from prominent Labour figures such as Roy Hattersley. Ministers are aiming to increase the number, currently around 300, to 450 by the end of this Parliament - one in eight English secondary schools. Under the school standards Bill, specialist schools will be able to select up to 10 per cent of pupils based on aptitude in technology, the arts, languages or sport. An announcement on the next tranche is expected soon.

Other changes resulting from the current legislative programme will begin to come on-stream in the next year or two. The Education Secretary will be given powers to shut failing schools and re-open them with a new head and staff, while local education authorities deemed to be failing may be taken over. Work will begin on setting up a general teaching council, due to come into being in 2000.

Besides implementing the changes foreshadowed in the Bills, ministers are expected to focus on teaching strategies - largely through their emphasis on literacy and numeracy - and life-long learning. A chief executive for the proposed University for Industry is expected to be announced in the summer and should be in post by early autumn. The first million learning accounts will be established next year, likely to be accompanied by an announcement, in the Chancellor's next Budget, of a tax relief scheme.

Two key events will affect the coming year's outlook . The first is the outcome of the comprehensive spending review, which will determine spending levels for the next three years, the second is the Cabinet reshuffle, expected in July.

It is likely the review will switch funds from other Whitehall departments to meet Mr Blair's promise to increase education's share of the public-spending cake.

The fruit of such a shift will ripen next April, marking the end of two years of restraint based on targets set by the last government. Ministers are hoping to bring new resources - in addition to the pound;2.3 billion already announced for schools and to tackle crumbling buildings over the next four years.

The money is likely to be used to underpin initiatives on class sizes, the 3Rs and information technology to fund the specialist schools' programme and to make progress towards extending nursery places to three-year- olds. Other priorities are likely to be schemes to tackle disaffection and social exclusion.

As to the reshuffle the signs are that Mr Blunkett will remain in post. His upwardly mobile lieutenant, Stephen Byers, however, can expect to be moved and perhaps promoted to the Cabinet. It will be a reward for what is seen to have been an effective performance, drafting the schools Bill while taking a tough line on "naming and shaming" and generally enforcing New Labour policies.

One Government enforcer who is also waiting to hear from the Prime Minister is the chief schools inspector, Chris Woodhead. His contract, which expires next year, is due to be reviewed this September.

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