* Blair's millennial 'beacon' * Summer camps for teenagers * Heads alarm over exclusion policy
OUT with the old... The festive season may be a traditionally quiet time for politicians, but, for New Labour, it proved yet another irresistible opportunity to put its message across.
On December 29, Prime Minister Tony Blair led the way with a presidential style new-year message, in which he insisted that a flexible and adaptable Britain, which made education "a key economic and social imperative", could become a "beacon" for the world.
Defending his record in education he listed the following successes: improvements in maths and reading due to the new national literacy and numeracy hours; more money for books and computers; the renovation of thousands of run-down school buildings; and a reduction in infant class sizes.
In addition, the number of specialist and beacon schools was being increased as part of "a fundamental modernisation of the comprehensive principle, by catering for the different needs and abilities of pupils".
"But," Mr Blair said, "we have a lot more still to do. In the next year we have to see through our radical reform of the teaching profession - paying good teachers more and raising the esteem and status of the profession.
"We have to continue the overhaul of inner-city comprehensives, tackling failing schools and local education authorities. We have to raise standards further. We have to tackle the appalling legacy of adult illiteracy or lack of skills. Education remains our number one priority."
While teachers must wait until the end of the month to hear the Government's proposals on performance-
related pay - when new salary scales are due to be annouced - David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, followed his leader, by setting out his stall for 2000.
In a keynote speech to the North of England education conference in Wigan, he announced sweeping plans to test 12- and 13-year-olds in English, maths and science, together with new achievement targets for 14-year-olds. The measures are designed to ensure that recent gains in literacy and numeracy at key stage 2 - the end of primary school - are built upon in the early years of secondary school.
Mr Blunkett's package also included plans to set up summer youth camps for 16-year-olds, to help them develop their self-confidence and enrich their experience. The camps, expected to range from rock-climbing and abseiling to work experience and voluntary work, are likely to be funded by the national lottery.
If ministers used the quiet holiday period to set out their priorities, the teacher unions were equally diligent in filling the post-Christmas vacuum with concerns of their own.
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers released the results of a survey of English, maths and science teachers which suggests national tests for 14-year-olds are unreliable and should be subject to a wholesale review.
The criticism is likely to be redoubled in the light of Mr Blunkett's call this week to set national targets based on the tests.
The Secondary Heads' Association, meanwhile, has called for an urgent meeting with the Education Secretary to discuss new rules aimed at cutting the number of pupils excluded from schools. The union claims the rule change means that pupils guilty of drug-dealing, racism and arson are escaping expulsion because local authorities are refusing to back heads.