What we did in the silly season

Mutterings about eunuchs. William Hague in a baseball cap. It really happened, says Nicolas Barnard

So maybe it was only the second hottest summer in history. But until Sunday brought the silly season to a sudden halt it was probably the weirdest.

Who would have guessed? Chris Woodhead being nice to teachers. William Hague at the Notting Hill Carnival. William Hague in a baseball cap. Teletubbies.

And almost nobody outside of the Daily Telegraph complaining that standards were falling because pass rates were rising.

A-level and GCSE results are traditionally the one thing that keep education hacks busy while the rest of the world is basking in the sun. But this was the year of the dog that didn't bark.

Maybe because of last year's Standards Over Time report or maybe through sheer inertia, hardly anyone could be bothered to claim that exams were getting easier as England experienced another year of record results.

Maybe the real reason is that there was a better story to be had - Tessa and the Gap Trap. Not a long-lost Mallory Towers adventure published to mark Enid Blyton's 100th anniversary, but the Government's first real spot of difficulty since teachers everywhere went into school with hangovers on May 2.

It was probably inevitable a bored press would decide that the honeymoon was over as Labour approached its 100th day in office. There was certainly plenty to latch on to, with John Prescott getting crabby over Peter Mandelson, an ill-judged by-election campaign in Uxbridge, trouble at t'Dome and ongoing shenanigans in the Scottish Labour party.

But where the Government really seemed to get it wrong was in its hasty reaction to Sir Ron Dearing's report on higher education.

Sir Ron spent 18 months preparing his report, with its carefully-crafted conclusion that universal tuition fees were needed. Ministers took just a few days to decide to make them means-tested, scrap the maintenance grant . .. and introduce them sooner than anyone expected.

Despite Government denials, the figures clearly showed such a move would hit working-class students hardest.

It was also predictable that introducing fees in 1998 would lead to a rush for places in 1997. Universities and Colleges Admissions Services chief executive Tony Higgins dared to say as much ... and got an earful of abuse from Tessa Blackstone, the minister left minding the shop while David Blunkett relaxed in Majorca with Roy Hattersley's memoirs.

She accused Higgins of scaremongering. But after three weeks of claim and counterclaim, in a spin not unlike that of the stricken Mir space station, the Government climbed down. All those who had already agreed a year out with their chosen university could start in 1998 without fees and with grants.

Unfortunately, as unpublished research leaked to The TES a week later showed, that would mainly benefit public school pupils.

And it did little to encourage would-be teachers. The recruitment crisis kept growing, with applications for secondary school PGCE courses falling in all subjects bar PE. And David Blunkett suggested that heads should be asked to report failing teachers to governors.

A-level results also prompted great speculation about further education reform, as ministers prepared an autumn consultation on Sir Ron's last-but-one review - still sitting on the shelf after almost two years.

The Guardian suggested the old "gold standard" might be swept away for a new baccalaureate-type system. Not so, the Department for Education and Employment told The TES: "A-levels are here to stay."

Hardly surprising though, given the news that a third of national vocational qualifications were facing the chop (mainly because few were taking them) and that general national vocational qualifications were failing to establish themselves as a route to higher education.

More consultations were launched on plans for a General Teaching Council and, in a paper quickly dubbed "structures not standards", on the future of grant-maintained and church schools. It gave further details of how the Government expects schools to divide up into the three proposed types of state school - community, foundation or aided.

If all that consultation suggested a lot of work for schools when they started again, there was little relief to be had from sex, drugs, or rock and roll.

Teenage pregnancies - including an 11-year-old father - and the drug-related shooting of five-year-old Dillon Hull made grim headlines. And the hype surrounding the new Oasis album made many want to Be Somewhere Else Now.

And then there was 15-year-old Sarah Briggs - expelled in July for knocking her Mansfield school in her local paper (head unavailable for comment), reinstated in August on appeal (head still unavailable for comment). What was that all about?

Exam results were not the only thing to drag teachers back through school gates. Hundreds of them ran the Government's 50 literacy summer schools.

The jury is still out on whether or not they have made a lasting impact. But Tony Blair, rushing back from holiday to stamp his authority on his fractious colleagues, announced a 10-fold expansion of the scheme next year. Don't book 1998's holiday just yet.

By the way, in case you missed it in the end-of-term rush for the beach or the bar, Chris Woodhead confessed in late July that Office for Standards in Education inspections were sometimes "inhumane". He also told the Professional Association of Teachers' annual conference inspection was "the eunuch's task" because only teachers could really change things.

All this and England won not one Test but two. You couldn't, as they say, make it up.

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