Warring Charlies set tone for a fractious year

24th December 2004 at 00:00
The arrival of Ruth Kelly brought a dramatic end to a year where the rows, including an ill-tempered battle royal, came thick and fast, writes Jon Slater

The merging of education and other children's services, proposals to scrap GCSEs and A-levels, shorter, but surprise, visits from inspectors and a new Education Secretary were the main events of 2004.

The resignation of David Blunkett led to Charles Clarke leaving the department to take his job at the Home Office. Ruth Kelly came from the Cabinet Office to become the youngest ever Education Secretary and David Miliband school standards minister got her old job. This meant promotion for Stephen Twigg and his namesake Derek joined the department from the whips office.

Mr Clarke and his team managed managed to avoid major scandal and the bungles that have beset their department in recent years and, if only by the skin of their teeth, put through controversial legislation on university top-up fees.

Their work was overshadowed as the war in Iraq and growing panic over crime and security grabbed public attention.

The year began with dire warnings (proved wrong) that the Labour rebellion on top-up fees could help unseat a Prime Minister already in trouble over Iraq. It ended with the Government promising a "childcare revolution", more education for three and four-year-olds and after-school care for the children of working parents.

In between, Parliament approved the Children Act, intended to ensure schools and other services work closely together to prevent a repeat of the tragic death of Victoria Climbie.

Mike Tomlinson's eagerly awaited plan for reform of 14-19 education ended inconclusively as, with the ink barely dry on the report, Mr Blair and education ministers backed away from his radical plans to replace A-levels and GCSEs with a new diploma.

Their final verdict will come in the new year.

The most harrowing school story of the year was in Beslan, Russia, where children were among the 1,000 people taken hostage in September by Chechen rebels. The pictures of naked children staggering from the building and the bodies of pupils, their parents and teachers shocked the world. Three hundred and thirty hostages were killed as troops attempted to rescue them.

Another tragedy struck Birkbeck school, Lincolnshire, when 14-year-old pupil Luke Walmsley was fatally stabbed. His death led the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers to call for airport-style security to discourage the carrying of knives.

Never a year goes by without an exams or curriculum cock-up, and 2004 was no exception. Hundreds of schools spent the summer trying to find out how well their 14-year-olds had done in English tests after another marking fiasco.

An inquiry condemned "a myriad of errors" that led to the results being published three months late. Jonathan Ford, the pound;129,000-a-year head of the National Assessment Agency, resigned.

Meanwhile, teachers in Wales could afford a smug smile. This year's tests for 11 and 14-year-olds will be the last after the assembly decided to scrap them.

Encouraging pupils to take more exercise games and eat healthily was the aim of The TES Get Active campaign to which 700 schools signed up. The effort to tackle the growing crisis of child obesity was backed by Sven-Goran Eriksson, Sir Clive Woodwood, Gabby Roslin and the Duke of Edinburgh.

And talking of royalty... Charles Clarke gave a typically robust response to a memo by the Prince of Wales, produced during an employment tribunal, which suggested that people these days had ideas above their station.

Despite the storm it caused, Mr Clarke emerged with his head still attached to his shoulders.

On the curriculum, the year started with an inquiry into the crisis in maths and ended with a crisis in languages.

Meanwhile, the largest exam board caused a stir by scrapping GCSEs in Latin and Greek and inspectors named geography as the worst-taught subject.

The year was also notable as the first full year of the implementation of the workforce agreement.

Controversy was not long coming with a leak in February of a government paper suggesting schools create super-sized classes so that teachers could have non-contact time for planning and marking.

Debate about the merits of the agreement raged in schools all year. Support staff union Unison voted against their leadership's support for the deal in June. The National Association of Head Teachers remains a signatory, despite pressure from grassroots members. While activists debated, schools got on with the job of transferring administrative tasks to support staff.

The Office for Standards in Education found progress was satisfactory but that most teachers had seen little reduction in workload and remained opposed to assistants taking classes.

The education world lost one of its most popular figures and a key architect of the agreement, Eamonn O'Kane, NASUWT general secretary, who died in May. His deputy Chris Keates stepped into the breach.

Those hoping the National Union of Teachers would join NASUWT and the other unions inside the Government's "big tent" were given a boost with the election of Steve Sinnott to replace Doug McAvoy as its general secretary.

But although relations have thawed, the NUT remains outside the deal and Ms Keates's vow to replace the NUT as the biggest union suggests a merger of the major unions is firmly on the back burner.

In June, David Miliband, then schools minister, unveiled plans for a "new relationship with schools" with promises of less paperwork, a light-touch inspection regime based on schools' self-evaluation and the replacement of annual governors' reports and parents meetings by a school profile.

But light-touch inspections come with a sting in the tail. Instead of notice of up to ten weeks, schools will get just a few days.

An increase in the number of schools being put into special measures was followed by a number of high-profile cases where Ofsted got it wrong - including one where a section of a school's report was "almost identical" to a less successful school 100 miles away. Even its own staff were concerned. The TES revealed in January that an internal survey showed them complaining of bullying and low morale.

But these problems could easily be blown out of proportion. A report published in August gave the inspectorate a clean bill of health. The only problem is it was produced by London university's institute of education and, you guessed it, Ofsted.

The much-vaunted five-year plans that all government departments were expected to pull out of a hat for the haul towards a third term had few surprises for teachers. Heads were pleased with the introduction of three-year budgets, which will allow them to plan their finances better.

Ministers also announced the ambitious target of 200 academies and plans for secondaries to switch to foundation status.

It is perhaps a sign of the times that the most significant measure for schools, expecting all secondaries and many primaries to open 8am-6pm by 2010, is part of the Government's plans to improve childcare.

The opposition? With an election fast approaching the biggest talking point the Conservatives managed to generate was the revelation that leader Michael Howard bunked off school to play snooker.

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