Twizzlers got the bird with Tomlinson's tests

23rd December 2005 at 00:00
The new Education Secretary did little to endear herself to teachers in 2005, recalls Michael Shaw

It was the year when parent power ruled, Turkey Twizzlers were banished and Ruth Kelly rapidly plunged from teachers' favour.

Ms Kelly set the tone for 2005 when she stepped on stage in Manchester in the first week of January to make her somewhat nervous debut speech as Education Secretary.

She promised the North of England conference she would give more power to families and that teachers would become "first and foremost parental champions". Ms Kelly also said that, as a mother of four young children, she planned to take a hard look at improving school meals.

Within months the Government agreed to find an extra pound;280 million for lunches and to ban junk food from school canteens and vending machines.

Whether this would have happened had it not been for a TV series by chef Jamie Oliver, which drew the public's attention to the shockingly poor quality of many school dinners, is unclear. Like the Government's other big education announcements this year, the banning of fatty burgers and Turkey Twizzlers was aimed squarely at winning families' votes in May's general election, then keeping parents onside for Labour's third term.

Other family-friendly wheezes included promising to extend the school day, tuition in small groups for all children, and "zero-tolerance" crackdowns on unruly pupils.

Parents were also uppermost in ministers' minds when they decided the future of England's exam system. Teachers' unions and the educational establishment were united behind Sir Mike Tomlinson's proposal to replace the barrage of tests faced by 14 to 19-year-olds with a flexible diploma.

However, Ms Kelly rejected the plan, telling MPs she had spoken to parents in her Bolton constituency who did not like it. Instead she announced a series of tweaks and add-ons to the existing examinations, notably vocational diplomas.

A promise to look again at A-levels and GCSEs in 2008 did little to appease horrified teachers, who complained that a prime opportunity had been wasted. Growing numbers of schools began quietly looking at alternative exams, such as the international baccalaureate.

It was chiefly this unpopular decision that transformed Ms Kelly in just three months from being virtually unknown in schools to being described by Hilary Bills, president of the National Union of Teachers, as the worst education secretary since Labour returned to power.

Even the usually tame Secondary Heads Association gave her a mauling when she appeared at its conference, with heads laughing and grumbling at her speech.

And that was far from the only act of rebellion by headteachers. Members of the National Association of Headteachers surprised their leadership by voting to pull out of the workforce agreement with the Government. The union later rejected the association's preferred candidate for general secretary, electing Mick Brookes, a motorcycling primary head from Nottinghamshire, instead.

In a year when The TES launched its Make The Link awards to encourage international connections, it was heartening that many UK teachers responded to natural catastrophes in the Indean Ocean and Pakistan by forging partnerships with schools facing adversity. Many thousands of pounds were raised by British pupils and teachers for those affected by October's earthquake in Pakistan and the Boxing Day tsunami in southern Asia.

Schools also had to help pupils cope with disasters closer to home, including the July bombings in London, which killed 52 people.

Among the suicide bombers was Mohammed Sidique Khan, who had previously been interviewed by The TES when he worked as a learning mentor at Hillside primary in Leeds.

The end of summer brought the annual row over A-levels and stories of slip-ups by exam boards. This year Edexcel was in trouble for using unqualified office staff to mark religious studies GCSE essays after just 20 minutes' training.

When schools reopened for the autumn term, the main question for teachers was whether they would get their new statutory free periods for planning, preparation and assessment that the promised free time would not materialise because of inadequate funding.

Predictions that the promised free time would not materialise proved unfounded, though the NAHT believes it may yet prove unsustainable because of inadequate funding.

As the year drew to the close, the greater concern in staffrooms was over who will suffer pay cuts when new teaching and learning responsibility points (TLRs) replace management allowances next year.

Although thousands of teachers are set to lose out, the vast majority are expected to be unaffected or to gain from the changes, which will provide more opportunities for younger staff to get bonuses.

Meanwhile, for Prime Minister Tony Blair and Ruth Kelly, the challenge has been drumming up support for their controversial education white paper.

David Cameron, newly-elected Conservative leader, has given his party's backing to the upcoming Bill - due in February - but there is growing rebellion among Labour backbenchers, emboldened by the party's defeat on anti-terrorist legislation.

Yet despite unease among Labour ranks, the white paper is unlikely to lead to the widespread return of the 11-plus or mass privatisation of state schools which its most vocal critics fear, as it predominantly consists of minor twists on recycled proposals.

But it could create plenty of confusion. For instance, local authorities will be under heavier pressure to ensure admissions are fair, but simultaneously face losing their power to take action because schools will be encouraged to join independent trusts and become their own admissions authorities.

Meanwhile parents will be offered "choice advisers" to help them to shop around schools.

And the point of all this? Parent power, of course.


Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today