Stand by for a year of raised temperatures

7th January 2011 at 00:00
Analysis - As the cold eases, 2011 could see the snowballing of free schools and academies while public sector cuts and the pay freeze bite. But, Irena Barker reports, reviews of pensions, the curriculum, early years and Sats should generate some heat

Last year ended with the gruesome image of an effigy of deputy prime minister Nick Clegg being ritually hanged by students during riot over university tuition fees.

Education secretary Michael Gove has survived seven months at the helm of the nation's school system without such an ignominious scene. But it was far from easy, with controversy besetting him from the outset (think binning Building Schools for the Future, massaging the take-up of academy status and the attempted dismantling of School Sport Partnerships).

This year, though, Mr Gove's reform agenda can be expected to bite ever deeper. And this could leave him open to Clegg-like levels of opprobrium.

One of the most obvious and controversial changes this year could be the anticipated "rush" to academy status, the sidelining of local authorities and a return to free-market principles.

The Government claimed academies were opening at a rate of "one every day" between September and November last year, bringing the total to about 350. Could we see twice this number open by the end of 2011, now the requirements have been well and truly loosened up? Or will headteachers and governing bodies decide that the whole process is a stressful waste of time with no real financial advantages? And will so-called "weaker" schools feel delighted or patronised by being taken under the wing of shiny, titanic academies with glittering Ofsted reports?

Whatever the case, the unions will be ready to oppose many proposed academy conversions, particularly in places where the NUT is strong, such as London. Local strikes and placard-waving are inevitable, although socialist energies may pale in the face of the schools reform juggernaut.

The same will go for the emerging "free schools". The policy is young and promises to remain contentious, as existing Steiner and Muslim schools will be among the first to qualify for state cash.

And how many of the newly created free schools will emerge? Journalist Toby Young's West London Free School is chalked for opening in September, although no site has actually yet been allocated. Certainly, the eyes of the media will be watching to see if the venture succeeds or fails.

Mr Gove and his friends at the Treasury are also expected to face a brazier-lit "spring of discontent" as the Budget and the Hutton review of public sector pension reforms loom at the end of March. It is uncertain whether teachers will go as far as swinging from the Cenotaph over their increased contributions, but walking out of their classrooms for a day or two is guaranteed to unsettle education chiefs.

The public sector pay freeze, due to hit in September for teachers, will do nothing to calm things as the rocky year rumbles on, particularly if inflation climbs and cuts are felt across the board. While teacher redundancies may not turn out to be as bad as some had feared, many teaching assistants can expect job losses and staff in local authority central services will almost certainly find themselves out of work in an overpopulated job market. As the freeze kicks in, a cap on headteachers' pay could also come into force in September if ministers have their way, although it is unlikely to spark riots.

The Government can expect an ideological battle with the unions as it attempts to add "freedoms and flexibilities" to the national pay and conditions structure in the months ahead. Details so far are unclear, but Mr Gove has said he will ask the School Teachers' Review Body, which advises the Government on pay, to look at how it can be done.

Andy Burnham, the shadow education secretary who has so far remained largely out of the limelight, will need to get as much mileage out of these controversies as possible if he is to make an impact.

But the year will not be defined exclusively by rows over a return to the free market economy in education and a crowd-pleasing royal wedding in April.

The curriculum is expected to become more of a hot potato than it already is, as the Government launches its review for both primaries and secondaries this year.

Communiques so far from the Department for Education present a potentially contradictory set of aspirations for the proposed overhaul: it will be slimmed down and "less prescriptive", at the same time as ensuring a "focus on subject content" and a return to traditional school knowledge such as narrative British history and the poetry of Pope and Shelley.

The debate is likely to be furious, with excitable academics fighting for their subject's prominence, while teachers sigh into their instant coffees.

For primary staff, big question marks hang over what the Government's position will be on cross-subject teaching and whether there will be a drive to increase specialist teaching in the upper years. Schools will also be keen to find out whether modern languages will be compulsory.

Indeed, if nothing else happens, it promises to be a bumper year for reviews.

A review of the early years foundation stage or "nappy curriculum" is due to report this spring. There is a general feeling that it needs tweaking rather than scrapping. However, it will be up to Clare Tickell, chief executive of charity Action for Children and head of the review, to decide just how far to tweak it.

The Government has managed to "buy off" the NUT and heads' union the NAHT with an official review of Year 6 testing to avoid a repeat performance of last year's Sats boycott. One head, Wayne Howsen from St Catherine's CofE Primary in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, has promised to go it alone in a boycott this May, but other heads have hardly been clamouring to join him.

The external review, headed up by the cross-bench peer Lord Bew, is due to report in June, having considered how to retain accountability at the same time as tackling the problem of "teaching to the test". Many heads have already expressed concerns that the review is only a delaying tactic to appease the unions and other anti-Sats campaigners. Only time will tell whether the Government will listen to its findings.

At the same time, the Government will demonstrate its love affair with exams as it pilots reading tests for six-year-olds this summer.

As the countless reviews fill the air with debate and indecision, 2011 will also see some substantial changes to a variety of education quangos.

Some teachers may rejoice to hear that this will be the last year in which they have to pay their #163;36 fees to the General Teaching Council, as chief executive Keith Bartley winds up its operations ready for the organisation's closure in March 2012. But school staffers with a penchant for cocaine and inappropriate classroom behaviour should refrain from celebrating: the disciplinary functions are expected to remain, but in a slightly different form.

Meanwhile, the Training and Development Agency for Schools will suffer funding cuts and will be pulled in-house by the Government, while a white paper on teacher training is expected to propose lowering the number of people entering teacher training, increasing workplace-based training and raising the minimum degree class for trainees.

At Ofsted, staff will wave goodbye to chief inspector Christine Gilbert when her contract expires in October, if not before, and inspectors will have to get to grips with a new, slimmed down role. The schools watchdog has been told to focus its attention on schools' "core function" of teaching and learning and forget about the previous government's policies.

As the new framework is introduced in the autumn, teachers will have to get used to more lesson observations from inspectors. Schools rated outstanding will be exempt from further inspections unless standards slip, with struggling schools told to expect more frequent visits.

In further education, funding - as ever - promises to be the major topic of the year. The sector as a whole faces a 4.3 per cent cut for 201112, and the abolition of the education maintenance allowance (EMA) will leave many colleges struggling to run courses through lack of students and cash.

All things considered, it promises to be a controversial year of industrial action, high-minded debate, political dogfights and, above all, endless, endless reviews.

It is probably safe to say that the majority of teachers and educationalists will not be making offerings of thanks to flower-bedecked effigies of Mr Gove come next December. All bets are on, however, for how many staffrooms will be furnished with a voodoo doll of the education secretary, liberally punctured with pins.

The year ahead

What's in store


- Publication of the James review of capital spending on schools, which may give some hope to very rundown schools whose Building Schools for the Future projects were axed.

- Sandwell Council to take Government to court over the axing of nine of its Building Schools for the Future projects.


- Publication of Government "green paper" on special needs.


The Budget

- Hutton review of public sector pensions published.

- Possible industrial action and angry demonstrations over funding cuts and pension reforms.

- First plans for university technical colleges drawn up.


- Schools to receive pupil premium for the first time.

- Kate Middleton to marry Prince William at Westminster Abbey.


- Hertfordshire primary headteacher Wayne Howsen to boycott Year 6 Sats: will anyone dare join him?


Review of Year 6 testing to be published.

- Reading test for six-year-olds to be piloted.


- First "free schools" to open.

- Headteachers' pay could be capped from now.

- Two-year pay freeze begins.


Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools, Christine Gilbert, leaves Ofsted.


New schools inspection framework in place.

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