The year we said bye John, hi Tony

26th December 1997 at 00:00
Nicholas Pyke on the educational highlights of 1997 - the year of naming and shaming

The dawn of 1997 brought an unseasonable whiff of retirement. Mrs Shephard was "determined to put a stop to it". She had teachers in mind when she fulminated against early retirement, pointing out that only one in five teachers stayed in the job until the age of 60. Her action sparked mass outrage, retirements and a partial government climbdown. It did nothing to prevent her imminent departure. The introduction of the ill-fated nursery voucher scheme was similarly ineffective.

With the Conservative government teetering, Tony Blair chose January to declare his "passion" for education. Mrs Shephard declared hers for caning. HM Chief Inspector Chris Woodhead did not go so far, saving his ire for JRR Tolkien and the BBC's Only Fools and Horses: the sort of stuff, he said, which was wrecking British culture.

He will have seen an international report concluding that half of British adults lacked the literacy to cope with everyday life. Mr Woodhead returned to the culture trail in February, declaring that a narcissistic Britain has lost the work ethic.

The Oxford and Cambridge Examination Board was found to have "serious irregularities" in its marking of A-level English scripts. These erred on the generous side Meanwhile the Conservative Education Bill was grinding to a halt. The legislation promising a "grammar school in every town" ran out of friends, parliamentary majority and time.

In March, London's Kings College concluded that the marking of national curriculum tests is so poor that one quarter of all pupils get the wrong grade.

According to Parliament's Education Select Committee, nursery vouchers were no more effective. The report came amid allegations that ministers tried to tamper with its findings.

To much relief, the real election campaign was finally under way in the middle of the month. Paddy Ashdown made his pitch with the promise of Pounds 10 billion of education spending through one penny in the pound on income tax.

Everybody claimed that schools were uppermost on the political agenda. In fact, education scarcely emerged as a point of debate. Instead we got a Labour party barrage of targets, strategies, summits and 21-point plans. Tony Blair declared his love for education. Again. Blair and education spokesman David Blunkett spent more time warning teachers off than wooing them. Blair, interviewed by David Frost, dismissed all notions of replacing HMCI Woodhead, while at the National Union of Teachers conference, Blunkett dismissed all notions of bowing to union pressure. John Major, meanwhile, proposed little more than assisted places for impoverished gentlefolk, and grammar schools. Polls suggested that teachers would vote for Labour, even though they didn't like its education policies.

A delegate with the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers claimed that "Darrens and Deans" were doomed to fail. On the eve of the election Prince Charles described modern speech as "a wasteland of banality, cliche and casual obscenity".

After May 1 the year was a welter of policies, task forces and repeats of previous announcements. Labour's first step was to draft emergency legislation crushing the Assisted Places Scheme. In other respects it wore Conservative clothes, and put the boot into schools and teachers. Just three weeks into office and minister Stephen Byers "named and shamed" 18 failing schools, giving them four months to improve. The same minister announced new measures allowing the speedy despatch of incompetent teachers. In June ministers ordered an emergency inspection of Hackney LEA in east London.

The new government postponed Sir Ron Dearing's A-level reforms and Helena Kennedy QC published a report saying that money from higher education should be diverted to further education.

Long-standing antagonists, HMCI Chris Woodhead and chief education officer of Birmingham Tim Brighouse were both put on the Government's key standards and effectiveness unit, presided over by Professor Michael Barber.

Sir Ron Dearing produced a marathon report in July on higher education. The Government welcomed his efforts but ignored them, deciding that students should be charged Pounds 1,000 a year tuition fees. Baroness Blackstone, the minister not on holiday, spent the summer picking up the pieces as students rushed to beat the fees.

A new salary structure rewarding "super teachers" was proposed. In September the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications merged to become the "super quango", the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

The DFEE eventually moved to take over Hackney. Jonathan Haslam resigned as director of information for the DFEE addinmg fuel to reports that the government press machine had been politicised. Ampleforth school decided that GCSE English literature was too easy and introduced its own exam.

David Blunkett undid Mrs Thatcher's work by restoring free school milk to a million primary pupils. Earlier, the lack of school milk was blamed for a rise in rickets.

The autumn brought trouble for the flamboyant leader of 460 FE colleges Roger Ward. In November The TES published evidence of his close links with the lecturing agency ELS and revealed he had a consultancy agreement with healthcare company Burke Ford Reed. He has denied the reports. A few weeks later he was up before Parliament's education select committee, apologising for misleading MPs over the Association of Colleges' register of interests.

The Education Bill, when it arrived this month, turned out to be two, so enormous was the scale of legislation. Clauses imposing university tuition fees and setting up a general teaching council form one part. New school categories, new powers for local authorities and education action zones come in a second Bill.

Macho to the end, the Government ignored the holiday mood and scheduled the second reading of the schools Bill just three days before Christmas. Scarcely a wonder that the ministerial team beat a hasty retreat from its own Christmas party - pleading exhaustion.

TES december 26 1997

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