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The year Labour embraced teacher unions

2003 kicked off with an admirable outbreak of harmony - but ministers' funding and pay plans seem to be storing up trouble, reports William Stewart

It was never likely that 2003 would match its predecessor for sheer drama in the education world.

With the chaos over criminal record checks for teachers, accusations of conspiracy over A-level grading and the shock resignation of education secretary, Estelle Morris, 2002 had it all.

But, while Charles Clarke will be glad that his first full year in the job as Ms Morris's successor has been a quieter one, the Secretary of State still has plenty to worry about as he sets off on his Christmas break.

There were fewer negative headlines but the difficulties that emerged in 2003 could be more politically damaging in the long term. The Department for Education and Skills has managed to kick the A-level scandal into the long grass through the Tomlinson review. But this year's school funding problems go to the heart of Labour's public service reform agenda and could run and run.

It all seemed so much easier at the beginning of the year when education ministers were happy in the knowledge that 200304 would be a comfortable one for schools following the Chancellor's announcement of the "biggest sustained rise in education spending in a generation".

When the difficulties first began to surface in early March, the Government appeared to be in denial. By May it had been forced to admit that there was a problem but was doing its best to pin the blame on local government, accusing councils of sitting on unspent millions.

But heads disagreed and concentrated their fire on ministers, reporting staff cuts, increased class sizes, and the cancellation of school building improvements. In October, Mr Clarke announced the package that he hopes will avoid more problems in 200405, based around a guaranteed funding increase of 4 per cent per pupil for every school.

But with many schools now in deficit, heads already warning of four-day weeks, and councils under heavy pressure from other parts of the Government to keep council tax down - with warnings that it might be capping - he is not out of the woods yet.

Another funding crisis could make the teacher workload agreement impossible to deliver. The deal, a something-for-something arrangement that gave teachers a reduction in workload in return for "workforce reform" allowing support staff to take classes, was signed in January.

But while most school staff unions joined hands with Mr Clarke, in one of the year's more memorable picture opportunities, the National Union of Teachers was left out in the cold.

Opposed to the principle of support staff taking whole lessons, even if they were supervised, the NUT refused to sign and was excluded from further talks.

Its relations with the DfES and the other teaching unions rapidly deteriorated as it mounted a high-profile campaign criticising the agreement. Mr Clarke refused to attend the NUT's annual conference in Harrogate, denying reporters the usual Easter confrontation between left-wing delegates and an education secretary.

Easter also saw the start of a marathon campaign that will eventually see NUT members electing Doug McAvoy's successor as general secretary next June and the union beginning the process that led to this month's ballot over a boycott of national tests for seven and 11-year-olds. But the action was dropped when only a third of its primary members voted when more than half were required.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers had its own leadership contest in April, electing Mary Bousted, previously head of Kingston university's school of education, as its new general secretary. It was the ATL that led the outcry over government proposals to raise the teachers' pension age from 60 to 65, a change it is expected to begin phasing in from 2006.

But relations between ministers and the school staff unions, the NUT excepted, have been cordial for much of the year thanks to the spirit of partnership engendered by the workload agreement. But there were strains as the year ended and the Government unveiled a package that will freeze teachers' pay until August 2006.

Most controversial of all was its attempt to introduce a quota system that would prevent more than 30 per cent of candidates progressing to level 3 of the upper pay scale. It was fiercely opposed by all the unions, which are now in talks with ministers to try to agree a solution by the new year.

There were also warnings from the National Association of Head Teachers that it would pull out of the workload agreement unless it was funded properly.

Implementation of the agreement began in September and appeared to run more smoothly than many had predicted. But this was just the first phase, involving the handover of more than 20 routine administrative tasks to support staff that many schools had transferred anyway.

The next academic year should see the introduction of a 38-hour limit on the amount of time that teachers can be asked to cover for absent colleagues each year . But NAHT members are raising doubts as to whether the money will be there to implement it. The heads' association, along with all teaching unions, was also concerned about the ideas contained in the Workforce reform - blue skies discussion paper leaked to The TES this month.

Written by a DfES official, but immediately dismissed by ministers, it suggested reducing teacher numbers to pay for more support staff and noted that the workload agreement meant there was no longer a need for heads to employ qualified teachers.

There was good news for the department on the exam front as A-level and GCSE results days came and went without any significant hitches. Mr Clarke's hopes for secondary education also seemed on course as the Specialist Schools Trust predicted that 93 per cent of the sector would win specialist status by 2006.

But the Government's education privatisation programme received a setback as WS Atkins withdrew from its pound;100 million contract to run Southwark local authority in south London three years early. And one of New Labour's proudest areas of educational achievement was undermined this month when theOffice for Standards in Education reported that one in eight English and maths lessons in primary schools was unsatisfactory.

The job of capitalising on these difficulties for a reinvigorated Tory party was this year passed on from Damian Green to Tim Yeo, the new shadow secretary for education and health.

Margaret Hodge also took on a new role as the Government's first children's minister, only to walk straight into controversy over a child abuse scandal from her days as Islington Council leader.

Not that Alan Johnson, her successor as higher education minister, is having an easier time. With the prospects of a substantial backbench rebellion in the new year becoming ever greater, university "top-up" tuition fees look as if they could become Tony Blair's poll tax.

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