Week in perspective;Briefing;The week in education;News amp; Opinion

3rd December 1999 at 00:00
MARTIN MCGUINNESS, the alleged former IRA leader, became the new Northern Ireland education minister this week, as home rule returned to Ulster after a 25-year gap.

Hard-line Unionists reacted angrily. Ian Paisley, whose Democratic Unionist Party turned down the education post accused Mr McGuinness of having a private army at his back.

Sean Farren of the SDLP was appointed as minister for higher and further education - giving Nationalists a clean sweep of the top education jobs.

Mr McGuinness, who has twice been jailed for membership of the IRA and was Sinn Fein's chief negotiator in the recent peace talks, promised to act in the best interests of all children - whatever their political persuasion.

A key issue will be the future of the province's grammar-school system which Sinn Fein opposes but which is popular with many Protestants.

Back in England, an NASUWT special conference on the issue, threatened industrial action if ministers refused to use next year's pay settlement to put a limit on teachers' working hours. But the conference rejected calls from activists to boycott the new pay structure.

The tricky job of finding common ground between the Government and teachers over pay reform has gone to David Puttnam, this week appointed head of the new General Teaching Council. Lord Puttnam, who made his name as an Oscar-winning film producer, is a member of the standards taskforce and organises the Government's teaching awards. The Labour peer's appointment will be viewed as a sign that ministers are trying to control the GTC. But Lord Puttnam is known to be sympathetic to teachers and earlier this year called for chief inspector Chris Woodhead to resign.

David Blunkett will also need a new general in his battle to convince teachers that the pay reforms are a good idea. Conor Ryan, his spin doctor, has left to give Frank Dobson's campaign for London mayor a much-needed boost.

Elsewhere, Cambridge Education Associates was announced as the Government's preferred bidder to take over Islington's education services in what will be the first full-scale privatisation of a local education authority.

CEA, which works with the Office for Standards in Education and several local authorities, is set to take control in April, hoping to improve the London borough's dismal exam performance.

Pupils hoping to improve their own exam results by appealing against the marking will have to think twice in future. David Blunkett has said he will allow GCSE and A-level grades to be lowered as well as raised on appeal. All pupils will be given the right to see their marked scripts on request.

Whatever their grades, A-level students will now be better informed when choosing a university. League tables of 175 universities and colleges were published for the first time by the Higher Education Funding Council this week, giving information on drop-out rates, the background of students, and academic and research performance.

Still, according to Warwick University research, any degree is worth having. Only 2 per cent of those leaving university were out of work three years after graduation and only one in ten was in a non-graduate job.

The study, of more than 11,000 young adults who graduated in 1995, also found no difference in employment levels between those who went to traditional and new universities.

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