This is the week when schools everywhere have returned to reality - not just the usual autumn re-entry syndrome, but the moment of truth that follows months of fearful anticipation of the effects of Government policies.
The two major changes facing teachers relate to class size and curriculum. On the national curriculum, the streamlined Dearing version is at last in place and the proof of the exercise can be in the teaching. Although the acrimony was taken out of that particular debate as soon as Sir Ron got a grip on it, it has been anticipated with scepticism or apathy rather than hope. Would it really be feasible to find space and time to develop ideas and initiatives outside the official curriculum, as Sir Ron had promised? And would anyone have the energy or inclination to try after the years of top-down prescription, and while facing other pressures? (For those who do seek inspiration, the two curriculum pages in TES2 from this week will offer practical ideas.)
The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers at least believes that the slimmed-down curriculum will help reduce workload, as it hammers out a cautious response to increased class size. It could be half-term before we know just how bad the position is. If the NASUWT tactic of using school-based negotiations to avert strike action pays off, that will mark a promising development in the union role, though in could never be a complete answer to the Government's funding squeeze. For, although it is too early to say how many pupils are now in classes of 3l or over, or whether the most extreme forecasts of teacher redundancies have been proved correct, there are some hard facts and figures which the Government cannot simply wish away, as our three-page class-size report (pages 3-5) reminds us.
First, there is the inexorable rise in the birth rate. Somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 more children marched into primary reception classes this week than a year ago, and the numbers of new boys and girls will go on increasing every year until the turn of the century. On any reasonable calculation, this year's new cohort would need around 4,000 extra teachers, but the combined efforts of the National Governors' Council and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy suggest that we have instead lost some 4,500 teachers because of the funding cuts, adding up to a shortfall of at least 8,500. Whether those who departed were made redundant, persuaded into early retirement, or ran out of short-term contracts, the effects on those left behind are the same: overcrowded classrooms; fewer supply teachers; increased workloads; and - since building maintenance, books and resources have been cut to save jobs - worse working conditions.
Then there are the missing reserves. After the Government had brushed aside its own Education Secretary's warnings of teacher redundancies, to deliver the double whammy of a prolonged spending squeeze and an unfunded teachers' pay award, it fell back on its reserves line. Or rather, it admonished both schools and local education authorities that if only they fell back on their own reserves, they would be able to fund the teachers' rise themselves.
There were some reserves, of course, but not spread evenly, and not transferable from school to school or LEA to LEA. And they can only be spent once. According to Tony Travers of the London School of Economics, local authority reserves fell by Pounds 850 million between April l994 and April l995, and schools reserves by another Pounds 100m.
So as we move into the negotiations for another public spending round and another teachers' pay deal, there can be little doubt what the education world expects from Gillian Shephard this term. It will be her ability to prevail with her Cabinet colleagues on education spending this time round which could make or break her reputation as Education Secretary, and test the Prime Minister's claim to have education at the top of his agenda.
In a week when the latest World Competitiveness Report again ranks the UK low on its labour force skills and education system, it is salutary to notice how irrelevant all of John Major's latest bag of tired ideas on opting out, vouchers and assisted places seem to the overcrowded classes in the schools where national competitiveness will be won or lost.