Take a deep breath - there's a sea change in education

4th January 2008 at 00:00

For the past three years, those in the know in education have been anticipating 2008 with bated breath.

The next 12 months have been dubbed mischievously as the "meltdown" year by some, as a string of fundamental changes to the curriculum and qualifications come into effect simultaneously.

Teachers expecting a quiet life, or indeed vastly improved pay packets, will be disappointed. However, preparations for these big structural reforms, which will affect most teachers' working lives, appear to have gone smoothly so far.

Secondary qualifications

Potentially the greatest change in the long term is the introduction, in September, of the new diploma qualification, although this will affect only a minority of schools and colleges initially.

Diplomas in five work-related subjects - engineering; construction; information technology; creative and media; and health - are being launched for up to 40,000 14 to 19-year-olds in selected areas of England.

The reform will require much greater collaboration between schools, colleges and employers, with school leaders having to consider issues such as shared timetables and how to transport students between institutions.

The diplomas have one of the most daunting aims in education: ending the vocationalacademic divide.

They will get going gradually over the next five years, with an extra five courses trialled from 2009, another four in 2010, and a final three the following year. By 2013, all pupils will have the right to study any one of 17 diplomas, at three levels. This term, students in the areas which are piloting the first of the diplomas will start opting for the courses, offering a first view of their popularity on the ground.

Most 11-18 secondaries and sixth form colleges, however, are likely to be concentrating at least as hard this year on major reforms affecting A- level courses starting in September.

The number of modules for most courses is being cut from six to four, an A* grade will be introduced to help universities select among high achievers, and more challenging questions are promised.

This is the first major change to A-levels since the troubled Curriculum 2000 reforms, and unions say it poses challenges for teachers and exam boards in adapting to a restructured exam.

Key stage 3 reforms

The other major secondary development, and the one which will affect most pupils, is the introduction of a new key stage 3 curriculum, also this September.

This is being phased in over three years, with changes to Year 7 introduced in 2008, followed by Y8 next year and Y9 in 2010.

Schools are supposed to be using the increased flexibility provided by a stripped down core curriculum to tailor their own provision, with more cross-curricular work and a greater focus on English and maths for those pupils needing it.

With so much other change on the cards, however, the key question will be how much time secondaries are able to devote to these 11-14 reforms.

Primary changes

In primary education, where the agenda is just as packed, teachers might just be starting the year in shock. For years, many have argued that the primary curriculum needs similar pruning to that being given to its secondary counterpart. Now Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, has said "OK".

Sir Jim Rose, whose trusty touch steered what once seemed a dangerously unsteady synthetic phonics debate safely to shore in 2006, will be overseeing Mr Balls's review.

Reading is still going to be big news following an international report which placed Britain's 10-year - olds 19th in the world - down from third five years previously.

The National Year of Reading technically starts in January, but in fact kicks off in the spring. Michael Rosen, the new children's laureate - a popular choice - is also unlikely to let books, poetry and fun slip off the agenda.

Testing the tests

The tests themselves may change as the Making Good Progress pilot, in more than 400 schools, progresses. Single level tests for seven to 14-year- olds, taken when ready, will relieve some stress from pupils, it is widely felt. But while tables and targets remain, so will teaching to the test.

This year will provide clues as to whether the new tests can really replace Sats from 2009, as ministers hope. The conclusions of a House of Commons Children, Schools and Families Select Committee inquiry on assessment will be eagerly awaited.

Whatever form of national testing is eventually adopted, ministers will be anxious to ensure that the remaining tail of pupils who currently fail to reach "expected" levels in numeracy and literacy start to meet the benchmarks.

But there is increasing awareness that for this to happen there must be a move away from a narrow standards-driven approach. The Department believes that recognition of children's broader home life and greater parental involvement hold the key to further academic success.

At the other end of the scale, this summer's national KS3 tests will see data collected for the first time on the proportion of pupils in every school achieving two or three levels above what is expected of 14-year- olds, as part of a drive to identify more gifted and talented teenagers.

Early years

In September, the Early Years Foundation Stage becomes compulsory. This is already proving controversial after an open letter to The TES signed by leading educationists, including Tim Brighouse, former London schools commissioner, raised fears that it will mean too much formal learning too early.

The Cambridge University-based Primary Review has also been concerned about the anxieties around children's lifestyles.

The review's final report is due later this year.

The Government, of course, has just outlined its own vision on children's welfare. This was formally initiated last month with the 10-year Children's Plan and will be extensively debated over the coming months.

Party politics

Some commentators view children's welfare as the key election issue around which Labour under Gordon Brown can launch a fightback against the resurgent Tories.

Expect the parties to continue to argue over school standards, with the Tories and the Liberal Democrats questioning the reliability of improvements in national test and exam results.

One area where there is likely to be broad consensus between the three big parties is the previously highly controversial notion that offering parents greater choice in secondary schools is the best way to improve standards.

With the Liberal Democrats now on board the market forces bandwagon, the formerly respectable idea that ministers should concentrate on ensuring that every neighbourhood is served by a good local school has been effectively abandoned by all three front benches.

There are some differences, with the Conservatives keen to make the academy programme their own and show that Gordon Brown is rowing back on the freedoms the semi- independent schools once enjoyed.

But the basic idea that variety of provision is the quickest route to good secondaries is accepted by all three parties.

Salary deal

On pay, teachers can expect news this month as ministers set out a three- year salary deal.

The Treasury has set a 2 per cent cap on all public sector pay rises, and although Number 11 Downing Street does not wield absolute control over the schools department, staffrooms should not expect a bonanza.

The Government will be keen to set a precedent for other public services by keeping as close as possible to the 2 per cent figure.

But with inflation now running above 4 per cent, teachers will be demanding something nearer this figure.

Trials of snap, or "no-notice" Ofsted inspections, which are already being looked at with alarm by heads' leaders, begin in 2008. And the first big batch of schools - 30 in total - are expected to open under the Building Schools for the Future programme.

A quiet year, then? Not quite.

Dates for your diary


5-8 Association of Science Education annual conference, University of Liverpool

9-11 North of England Education Conference, Cardiff

9-12 BETT Show, London Olympia,

27 Holocaust Memorial Day


Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Month

23-1 Obese Awareness Week

28-1 The Education Show, NEC Birmingham

29-2 Labour Party Spring Conference, Birmingham NEC


6 World Book Day

7-9 Association of Schools and College Leaders annual conference, Hilton Brighton Metropole

11-16 National Science and Engineering Week

14-16 Sport Relief 2008

17-20 ATL annual conference, Torquay

21-25 NUT annual conference, Manchester

24-27 NASUWT annual conference, Birmingham ICC

27-29 British Dyslexia Association International Conference, Harrogate


Autism Awareness Month


Museum and Galleries month

2-4 National Association of Head Teachers annual conference, Liverpool

5-9 KS3 tests

12-16 KS2 tests


3-4 Independent Schools Council annual conference, London

15-20 Unison annual conference, Bournemouth

18-20 National College for School Leadership conference, ICC Birmingham


2-4 Design and technology annual conference, Loughborough University

28-30 Professional Association of Teachers annual conference, Daventry Hotel, Northants


14 A-level results

21 GCSE results


1-7 National Literacy and Numeracy Week

3-6 British Educational Research Association conference, Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh

13-17 Liberal Democrat Conference, Bournemouth

21-25 Labour Party Annual Conference, Manchester

28-1 Conservative Party Conference, Birmingham NEC

29-1 The Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference

Annual Conference, Gloucester Hotel, London


Black history month

6-12 National Children's Book Week

9 National Poetry Day


17-21 Anti-bullying Week


Primary league tables published.

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