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The BBC's Mike Baker
"A certain Mr Christopher Woodhead resigned"
 real 28k

Monday, 25 December, 2000, 00:25 GMT
A dramatic year for education
bbc education correspondent Mike Baker
Sex rows, angry walkouts, dramatic court cases and a shock resignation - no-one could say the year 2000 was a dull one for education.

It was a year in which the Labour government hoped to consolidate its reforms and build a solid base for an expected general election next year but, as so often in politics, a series of "little local difficulties" dominated the political agenda.

The government tried to start the year by keeping everyone "on message" and attuned to its drive to raise standards in the basics.

At the North of England Education Conference in January, the education secretary made it clear that, having rolled his tanks through the primary curriculum, he was about to direct them towards the secondary sector.

According to the behind-the-scenes briefers, New Labour's literacy and numeracy reforms had completed their "blitzkrieg" in primary schools so successfully that it was now possible to open a second front in the secondary sector.

Yet the post-millennium hangovers had barely given way to the new school term before the government was having to react to issues it would rather had remained invisible.

Section 28

First along was the rather curious row over the government's attempts to repeal Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which banned the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities.

pshe lesson
Section 28 does not directly affect schools
It was an odd row as the focus became sex education in schools yet local councils had long ago lost their powers to influence the curriculum.

Sex education is a matter for school governors and teachers, neither of whom are covered by Section 28.

That did not stop a lot of hot air being exhaled on the subject and it did lead to a review of the government's guidance on sex education.

This was a compromise document which both placed stress on teaching about "marriage and its importance for family life" and on the importance of "stable relationships" outside marriage.

Selection ballots

Just as the sex education row was simmering, the grammar school issue also bubbled to the surface.

The debate over selection is one of English education's hardy perennials. This time it was triggered by parents in Ripon who became the first to test the government's new arrangements for ballots to determine whether or not to keep selection.

Students at Ripon Grammar School
Ripon Grammar survived a parental ballot
When Labour came to power some sections of the media began a scare campaign over the threat to grammar schools.

In fact, the last thing New Labour wanted was the distraction of a campaign against schools with high academic standards.

That would not have played well with the voters of Middle England. On the other hand, something had to be offered to the strong pro-comprehensive movement within the Labour Party.

The offer of parental ballots was an attempt to take the sting out of the issue and, the Ripon ballot apart, it appears to have worked. The arrangements make it so difficult to trigger a ballot that no other part of the country has come close to following Ripon to a vote.

The defenders of Ripon Grammar School won the March ballot and it seems certain that Labour's first term will pass without the loss of a single grammar.

As the dust settled on that row a new, more explosive, issue came along: The plan for performance-related pay (PRP) for teachers in England and Wales.

Teachers' pay

In February the teachers review body proposed a 3.3% pay rise and endorsed the government's plans to offer a further 2,000 a year increase to "good" teachers who would move on to an extended pay scale.

At the Easter conferences of the teachers' unions, opposition to PRP reached a crescendo.

At the NUT conference the Schools Minister, Estelle Morris, was snubbed by a mass walk-out and delegates voted to ballot for a one-day strike to oppose the scheme. As so often with NUT conference votes, the union's leadership later rejected the call for a ballot.

estelle morris
NUT delegates walked out on Estelle Morris
Despite the strong objections to the principle of performance pay, by June some three quarters of eligible teachers had applied to cross what had become known as "the performance threshold".

The government was delighted and thought it had won the long battle. They had reckoned without Mr Justice Jackson who, in late July, shot down the scheme in a High Court ruling following a legal challenge from the National Union of Teachers.

It was the most dramatic, and unexpected, ruling. The PRP scheme was declared unlawful on the grounds that the government had failed to follow the proper legal and parliamentary procedures.

Almost as shocked and angry as Mr Blunkett were many of those teachers who had been counting on their 2,000 bonus in time for Christmas.

A slightly amended version of the PRP scheme was resubmitted in the autumn and this time the teacher unions accepted the inevitability of change. Teachers are now hoping for their pay bonuses early in the New Year.

Laura Spence

The other big issue of the summer also took education ministers by surprise, only this time it was triggered not by a High Court judge but by their colleague in government, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown.

In May he criticised Magdalen College, Oxford, for rejecting an application to read medicine from a comprehensive school pupil, Laura Spence.

Laura had instead won a scholarship to Harvard University and the charge from the chancellor was that this showed the anti-comprehensive bias of Oxford. Mr Brown described her failure to be admitted by Oxford as "an absolute scandal".

laura spence
Laura Spence: Rejected by Oxford
The attack attracted a furious reaction from Oxford dons and students who accused Mr Brown of not knowing the real facts behind the headlines.

Magdalen College strengthened its case by being uncharacteristically open about its admissions process, thus exploding the myth that admissions were based on "an old establishment interview system".

Nevertheless, Mr Brown had succeeded in putting the spotlight on the relatively low numbers of state schools applying to, and being accepted at, Oxford and Cambridge.

However there were fears that the publicity for the allegations of elitism at Oxbridge might serve only to increase the reluctance of state school pupils to apply.

This appeared to be confirmed when Cambridge released its admissions figures for this autumn's entry, showing a slight fall from 53% to 52% in the proportion of students coming from state schools. The proportion from comprehensives was only 34%.


Some other notable changes this year included the launch of "city academies" and the faltering success of several "fresh start" schools.

An innovative six-term year was proposed but immediately hit the obstacle of a conservative profession.

Chris Woodhead
Farewell Chris Woodhead
The General Teaching Council began work although internal disagreements over its direction and profile mean it has yet to make much impact on the public, or even the profession.

After two years in which Labour kept a very tight hold on the purse strings, extra money began to flow to schools, some of it directly to head teachers.

But many schools said the increase in their budgets, while welcome, barely made up for shortfalls in the past.

Meanwhile an even bigger problem was emerging for head teachers: An inadequate supply of teachers to fill staff vacancies.

These then were some of the highlights of the education year.

Oh and I almost forgot.

A certain Mr Christopher Woodhead departed from the schools' inspectorate leaving many teachers celebrating the departure of their chief scourge, others disappointed at the loss of an outspoken champion of rigorous standards, and journalists weeping inconsolably about the disappearance of a great source of news.

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See also:

18 Apr 00 | Hot Topics
Parent power
19 Sep 00 | Education
Fairer school funding promised
02 Nov 00 | Education
Schools watchdog Woodhead resigns
Links to more Correspondents stories are at the foot of the page.

Links to more Correspondents stories