Review of 2008 - That was the year of marking chaos

19th December 2008 at 00:00
But there was also the scrapping of key stage 3 tests, the first national walkout by teachers for two decades, a raging debate on curriculum content and raising the school leaving age

Long before 2008 began, it had been dubbed education's meltdown year. Teachers seemed at risk of being overwhelmed by a wave of reforms, particularly those in secondary schools who faced a new curriculum, new A- levels and the advent of the Government's work-related diploma qualification.

But those changes passed off with minor hiccups. Instead, it was a largely unnoticed development from last autumn that triggered this year's true "meltdown". That was the awarding of a new contract for the marking of the national tests for 11 and 14-year-olds to American-owned company ETS.

It led to a chaotic summer of disorganisation and frustration for thousands of schools, pupils and markers. The Sats debacle paved the way in the autumn for the scrapping of the key stage 3 tests - perhaps the most significant development in teaching for years.

The intense debate during the year over the curriculum and assessment seemed apt for the 20th anniversary of the national curriculum. But 2008 would also be remembered for an event that had not occurred for the past two decades: a national walkout by the National Union of Teachers (NUT).

Tests in a mess

When ETS was put in charge of national tests last year, its contract was regarded, ironically, as a model of best practice by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Yet even before the year began, markers were murmuring about problems with the firm's new online training systems.

By the spring, hundreds began to deluge The TES website with complaints about disorganisation surrounding training events.

Schools were annoyed by faulty systems for entering pupil attendance details and some markers' complaints ran to pages, including exasperation over scripts never turning up at their homes.

By late June, it was clear that the marking would not be completed on time. In the end, the KS3 results were put back to the autumn term, and thousands of KS2 pupils received their results late.

Ministers terminated ETS's five-year-contract just a year in, costing the company Pounds 50 million. They also called for an inquiry, which reported this week. It castigated ETS and triggered the resignation of Ken Boston, the QCA's chief executive.

But the biggest surprise came in October when Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, dumbfounded everyone - and delighted many - by announcing that the KS3 tests were being scrapped with immediate effect.

Schools are still grappling with the implications of this, and many will spend next year continuing as if the tests were still in place.

The end of KS3 tests was not the only change that came on the back of the Sats debacle as ministers also pushed ahead with new forms of assessment for schools, announcing plans for a report-card system.

Curriculum twists

The marking chaos came against the backdrop of a rising clamour for a more fundamental reform of the testing system and the accountability regime on which it rests.

The schools select committee produced a hard-hitting report that attacked "teaching to the test" in May. By the autumn, Sir Jim Rose, the Government's trusted adviser, was also raising it as the "elephant in the room" of the curriculum debate. Sir Jim's interim report on a new primary curriculum was greeted with headlines that suggested he was advocating the end of geography and history lessons.

But the reality turned out to be more nuanced, with Sir Jim proposing a general slimming down of curriculum prescription and the rearrangement of the current 14 subjects into six areas of learning.

The rival, longer, primary review led by Professor Robin Alexander at Cambridge University, also neared its conclusion. It published a slew of academic papers covering subjects as diverse as international comparisons, funding, school design and streaming, as well as getting in a broadside directed against the testing system.

In secondaries, curriculum changes were beginning in earnest, including the launch of the 14-19 diplomas, although ministers' claims that 50,000 pupils would be in the first group to try the qualification proved to be a wild exaggeration. Only 12,000 did so.

Parent groups seemed more interested in changes to the curriculum for under-fives. The Open Eye campaign group managed to secure the review of two of the most contentious early learning goals - that children should be able to write their own names and other things such as labels and captions, and begin to form simple sentences using punctuation.

But the early years foundation stage still began in September 2008 as planned.

Ready to strike

The anger of both parents and childminders over the early years curriculum paled in comparison to teachers' fury over two important political decisions.

The award of a below-inflation three-year pay deal to teachers prompted the first national teachers' strike for 21 years by the NUT.

The move divided staffrooms and was criticised by other teachers' unions and ministers, who warned that it would upset parents. But the strike in April succeeded in closing or partially shutting some 9,500 schools in England and Wales.

Billy Bragg, the left-wing songwriter, told a strike rally in London: "If there's any socialism left in this country, teachers are at the cutting edge."

However, by November, the NUT decided against pushing ahead with any further action, with many teachers commenting that the worsening economic gloom seemed likely to lessen public support.

The Government also angered many in the profession with its National Challenge scheme, which threatened to close 638 schools where fewer than 30 per cent of pupils achieved target GCSE passes.

Ministers insisted that they had not published a list of the National Challenge schools to identify them, or used the word "failing". But the press did, and the headteachers who were affected were furious - particularly those who continued to suffer the stigma even though their schools' exam results then improved in the summer.

School closures were also threatened in the private sector, although these were a result of the credit crunch. Independent schools also had to brace themselves for the Charities Commission, which began to pilot public benefit tests.

The age of leaving

The umpteenth education act since Labour came to power saw it become compulsory for all young people to remain in education or training until the age of 18.

The policy was criticised by the press. It feared that more troublemakers would be forced to stay in schools - even though the brunt would be borne by FE colleges.

Labour's academies also faced criticism. The TES revealed that the building services company Amey was to become the first sponsor to pull out of the scheme, severing its links with Unity City Academy in Middlesbrough.

Faith schools, once favoured by Labour, found themselves on the defensive in March when Mr Balls released evidence on their admissions. The findings, based on just three authorities, showed that more than half of the authorities' faith schools were breaking admissions rules and a small minority were asking for contributions from parents.

Meanwhile the Conservatives became increasingly vocal in attacking what they characterised as an "educational establishment" that was letting down pupils.

The Tories and Liberal Democrats were both keen to learn lessons from Sweden, which gives all independent schools the right to state funding as long as they do not charge fees.

With neat timing, one of the Swedish firms running these schools, Kunskapsskolan, arrived in the UK to sponsor an academy with a distinctive child-centred educational philosophy.

But the Scandinavian country may not be so fashionable as an educational inspiration in 2009.

This year ended with some rare good news for England's education ministers in the form of the Timss international testing study.

England's 10 and 14-year-olds had ranked among the world's top performers in maths and science, outperforming European competitors. Among those beaten by England in all four categories was, of course, Sweden.


The biggest education story of the year - the disastrous marking of national tests - was first uncovered by The TES.

The paper began reporting markers' concerns in May and continued to do so, despite strong denials from officials that there would be any delays in results.

Warwick Mansell, The TES curriculum expert, was nominated for the Paul Foot Award for investigative journalism for bringing the scale of the problems to light.

But that was far from the only story that appeared here first. The national press cited The TES hundreds of times during the year.

Often it was quirkier stories that attracted the most attention, such as the recommendation from a headteachers' training scheme that they should give pupils "high fives", and the revelation that action movies would be included as a topic in GCSE media studies. A poll showing how many British teachers wanted caning brought back was reported by publications as far afield as The Times of India.

The TES also provided unparalleled coverage of the National Union of Teachers' national strike, surveying teachers on the day it was announced to reveal the divide in the profession over industrial action.

The Government's interest in launching a "report card" for schools was also revealed on these pages, as was Sir Jim Rose's intention to cut the number of subjects studied in primary schools.

But the most depressing revelations surrounded child protection. The TES special series The Big 5 showed up a range of holes in the Government's Every Child Matters drive - including the training for teachers to identify abuse. Lord Laming, who led the inquiry into Victoria Climbie's death, told the newspaper that implementation of his recommendations had been "rather patchy".

Seven months later he was asked by the Government to review them following the outcry over the death of Baby P.

TES reporters.

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