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There may be trouble ahead

Over the next 12 months, sparks look set to fly in a series of new education rows. Warwick Mansell reports

Will the next 12 months be the most contentious period yet for Labour on education?

It is perhaps a brave question, given that the past seven years have hardly been characterised by consensus on the best way forward for our schools, colleges and universities.

But the signs are that the coming year, leading up to a general election expected by next summer, will centre on new rows over both how much the Government has achieved since 1997 and on the party's increasingly Blairite vision for the future.

Proposals for 200 academies by 2010, the new power of all schools to become "independent" and the emphasis on consumer choice in education are likely to dominate political debate in 2004-5.

With the Government also pushing into traditionally Conservative territory on school uniform and competitive sports, education could be the biggest flashpoint after Iraq at next month's party conference in Brighton.

The year 2004-5 will also prove a test of ministers' promise to tone down aspects of the centralising tendency which has been in place since at least 1997. Teachers will be eager to see whether promises of a more strategic, less hands-on role for the Department for Education and Skills bear fruit.

The Chancellor is backing this with a pledge to pass more money to the front line, making DfES job cuts inevitable. Details of possible union action could emerge this month.

This term the Office for Standards in Education will publish the detail of plans for a new "shorter, sharper" school inspection regime, to be introduced next September.

And the Government is expected to announce that it is to replace key stage 1 tests with teacher assessment.

This term could also be a crucial period for three years of negotiations over reducing teacher workload. A new rule, limiting to 38 hours a year the amount of time any teacher is required to spend covering for absent colleagues, is introduced this week.

Perhaps more contentiously, both Unison and the National Association of Head Teachers are to decide whether or not to pull out of the workforce agreement following rows over support staff pay and funding.

The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers' search for a new general secretary will be complete by January 1, with the acting general secretary, Chris Keates, the hot favourite.

Attention will also focus on whether Steve Sinnott, who took over as leader of the National Union of Teachers in July, can bring his union back into the fold without signing the workforce agreement.

The NAHT will search for a new general secretary to take over from David Hart next year, while the National College for School Leadership is seeking a new chief executive as Heather du Quesnay will leave by the end of 2004.

Teachers' pay rises have already been fixed at 2.5 per cent annually to 2006, but the School Teachers' Review Body is to wrestle with other issues, including regional pay and a new system of management allowances.

On the curriculum, this term heralds more controversy as languages and design and technology are made optional at key stage 4 in a drive to offer schools more flexibility in the subjects they offer pupils.

At the same time, work-related learning becomes compulsory for 14 to 16-year-olds.

Ministers can expect a row over the marking of key stage 3 English tests.

They have yet to announce when the results will be published.

In October, Mike Tomlinson's long-awaited final report on the future of 14-19 qualifications will set out plans for a diploma system to replace A-levels and GCSEs in the long term. Ministers are expected to accept the proposals.

It all adds up to a busy 12 months.

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