There may be troubles ahead...

2nd January 1998 at 00:00
As the New Year begins, Frances Rafferty foresees a full and frantic agenda for education.

Next week's North of England conference in Bradford, when education traditionally kicks off its year, could provide a barometer reading of the fair winds and storms ahead for the Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett and his Government colleagues.

The conference in recent times has been largely a cathartic affair for the predominantly Labour councils - a chance to hiss the villainous Conservative education secretary of the day.

Now Labour are in, Mr Blunkett has sent Stephen Byers, education minister, to tough it out. The Education Secretary will send his message via a video recording. Mr Byers can expect hard questioning from delegates. Many are unhappy the School Standards and Framework Bill, which reaches its committee stage in the House of Commons this month, gives them too many duties and not enough powers or money to carry them out.

It will be interesting to see how what should be a friendly audience reacts to the schools minister. One local education stalwart said: "There may be those who will signal their disappointment. But they won't be living in the real world."

David Blunkett ended the year controversially following leaks of a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer critical of potential cuts in disability benefit. He can expect further ructions as another Bill, now in the House of Lords, introduces tuition fees and new student loans. And, if the rumours are true, he could lose his number two, Stephen Byers, who is being widely tipped for promotion in the next reshuffle.

Teachers will be waiting with interest for the publication at the end of this month of the School Teachers' Review Body report which includes their pay award. Mr Blunkett has warned the extra money he has found for education must not be spent on teachers' salaries. As the papers say ... watch this space.

Teachers can also expect more details on the General Teaching Council to be set up by 2000.

Next month councillors set their budgets for the coming year and the Government has set them a test - extra cash for education but barely a penny for other services like social services which face huge extra burdens.

Local authorities can expect public censure if they hive off any of the education money for anything else. Capping limits have been eased, but council tax rises are unpopular - and many authorities go to the polls in May.

At the same time, councils will have to implement the reorganisation of schools into community, foundation and voluntary categories and grapple with new admissions arrangements, early years plans and local management schemes.

Meanwhile, ministers are giving themselves extra powers to intervene, powers exercised in last year's (not entirely successful) dry run in Hackney. The way those powers are used, and the Chancellor's allocation to LEAs next December will give an indication of Labour's longer-term intentions.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority will be unleashing a nationwide data barrage. Schools will get sets of "benchmarks", allowing them to see how other schools in similar circumstances are performing. These will be the basis for performance-improving targets.

The new super-quango's first major task is the review of the national curriculum to be implemented in the next millennium. The QCA is facing a number of pressures. Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, wants a back-to-basics curriculum for younger children concentrating on maths and English. This fits well with the wishes of ministers, who have already told schools they want time for a literacy hour.

The chief executive of the QCA, Dr Nicholas Tate is more cautious and wants to keep some breadth of study. More maths, he argues, does not necessarily mean better maths.

Big questions remain about 14, 15 and 16-year-olds at key stage 4. Many advisers favour suspending the national curriculum for older pupils and re-thinking 14 to 19 education as a whole. But this is likely to be more radical than the Government will tolerate at present.

The QCA will, at the least, have to come clean on 16 to 19 qualifications. Last year it proposed a single "school-leaving certificate" for 18-year-olds, which can be gained through academic and vocational qualifications, or a mixture of the two. The consultation process is now complete.

The Government's numeracy task force is expected to propose a traditionalist emphasis on mental arithmetic and whole class-learning, combined with a newer emphasis on class discussion and the involvement of every child when it reports next month. It will call for a national year of mathematics. This will be preceded by the national year of literacy which begins this autumn.

Social exclusion is one of Labour's big projects. Education will be crucial to that. But the Government will need to show how, in practice, it is going to raise achievement among disaffected young people, cut truancy and reduce school exclusions. Success will not only improve social cohesion but also raise educational achievements. But it will not be easy.

Consultation will end soon on the special needs Green Paper. Labour says it wants to cut red tape, streamline assessment of SEN children and give more support to parents.

Also in the 1998 pipeline: the millennium volunteers, the National Grid for Learning and the national youth service audit.

The first cycle of local education authorities to be inspected by OFSTED starts this month. Twelve authorities will be inspected this year, selected to provide a cross-section of urban, rural and suburban areas.

Next month, the chief inspector's first annual report under Labour, summarising inspection evidence garnered over the year, will be published. This will also be Chris Woodhead's last full year before his contract expires in September 1999.

In spring, a major report on the state of secondary education in England and Wales is due to be published, based on evidence from the completed four-year cycle of secondary school inspections. The four-year primary cycle should be completed this year. By Easter a report into the quality of educational research, commissioned Dr James Tooley, director of the education unit at the right-wing Institute of Economic Affairs, is expected. Academics are already alarmed as the chief inspector's own less than complimentary opinion on much educational research is well known.

The controversial re-inspection of primary teacher training on behalf of the Teacher Training Agency will finish in July. So far, four institutions have been identified as failing but only one, Derby, has been penalised by the TTA. Also watch out for a new list of schools to be "named and shamed".

The big bang for further education comes this week, with the launch of the first pilots of the Government's New Deal for the young unemployed. The scheme, a cornerstone of New Labour policy, goes national in April.

Also due in the early days of 1998 is the Government's long-awaited Lifelong Learning White Paper, a document which could bring about a revolution in the way education is organised for the over 16s.

Meanwhile, lecturers could see a new dawn in industrial relations - if, that is, Paul Mackney the new general secretary of NATFHE, has anything to do with it. The world of FE also eagerly awaits the report of the McKeag inquiry into revelations in The TES about Roger Ward, chief executive of the Association of Colleges.

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