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Tuition fees and exams will test Blair to the limit

Tony Blair made education his premiership's priority. By turning this month's Higher Education Bill into a confidence vote, he will ensure that it remains so.

Persuading Labour rebels to back variable fees could prove costly in 2004 when public spending will be under close scrutiny. Even if Mr Blair wins, his political capital will have been eroded 18 months before the likely date of the next election.

Top-up fees will also be a big headache for Michael Howard, the Tory leader, as senior party figures think his party's opposition to the policy unprincipled and unsustainable.

The universities may fret about funding. But schools and colleges will mourn Gordon Brown's earlier largesse when the Chancellor's 2005-8 spending plans are published in the summer.

While spending increases may continue to exceed inflation, there will be little left for heads who hoped to be compensated for last year's problems.

But there will be more cash for childcare. And in April free nursery education will finally be available for every three-year-old in the UK. 2004 heralds two key reviews. Mike Tomlinson's 14-19 diploma will replace GCSEs, A-levels and sub-GCSE qualifications with a classic fudge.

While replacing excess coursework with a single essay, the diploma's failure to require students to study disciplines (apart from English and maths) will destroy hopes of an English bac.

And its catch-all approach will fail to make vocational study the attractive alternative it must become. The plans will be welcomed by those teaching unions who cheered bipartisan A-level reforms in 1996. Their backing will just as quickly disappear once the problems emerge.

The Government's maths inquiry will prompt many leader writers' laments about national inadequacy. But Professor Adrian Smith will deserve plaudits if his report leads to more young people studying maths through new applied courses.

The crystal ball offers three other predictions. The Government will be criticised in the autumn when key targets are missed despite improvements among 14-year-olds.

The National Union of Teachers will vote for new strikes at Easter despite its members' apathy to a test boycott. And David Miliband, school standards minister, will continue to insist that "personalised learning" is the next big thing (though nobody really understands what he means).

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