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Monday, 1 January, 2001, 02:33 GMT
Election looms for education
bbc education correspondent Mike Baker
A look ahead to what 2001 might hold for education in England.

It may seem indecently early but already the question dominating education politics is: "When will Blair go to the country?"

The Department for Education in England already appears to be clearing the decks for an election, with very little on the legislative agenda for the New Year.

One thing is almost certain: David Blunkett will move on at some point during 2001. If Labour do win again a Cabinet "swap" with the current Home Secretary, Jack Straw, looks a likely option.

Another possibility is the return of Stephen Byers, the former education minister who has still not been forgiven by many teachers for his "name and shame" approach in May 1997.

Estelle Morris, who replaced Mr Byers as School Standards Minister, would be a more popular choice with the profession but - although she looks destined for a Cabinet post - it is unlikely she could go straight to the top job within education.

Major theme

Whatever the outcome of the general election, education will be an important theme at the hustings.

William Hague
William Hague: Campaigning on education issues
Tony Blair has made it clear in recent speeches that it is still his top priority and William Hague is warming to the subject, after the success of his tough line on pupil exclusions.

He has just published a pamphlet, under the imprint of the think tank Politeia, setting out his policy for "free schools".

That was the clearest sign yet that he thinks it is a good issue for the Tories to campaign on.

The Liberal Democrats will also fancy their chances on education issues, especially their promise to get rid of university tuition fees.

But the debate may turn more on the government's record - on class sizes, standards and spending - than on new policies as, so far, there has been little sign of radical new thinking from any of the parties.

School vouchers, extensive privatisation, abolition of GCSEs or changes to the school year all seem too radical for the present.

Within Labour, there seems to be a battle going on over whether to go for a radical agenda or a "steady as she goes" approach.

Fresh ideas

Politicians seeking new ideas in the New Year may start looking to President George W Bush in the United States, who has some radical education ideas if he can get any of them through Congress.

If he does, expect politicians of all parties here to head across the Atlantic to see how his policies are working on vouchers, failing schools and the expansion of "charter schools".

The year 2001 seems likely to see further privatisation in education. Someone other than Mr Blunkett, with his strong history in local government, is likely to accelerate the shift of functions from local education authorities to private companies.

Will Kings' College, Guildford, remain the only privately-run school within the state sector? Much will depend on how well it performs, but I think we can expect others to follow.

Fresh Start - closing a failing school and reviving it under a new identity - is likely to be quietly put on the back burner as the evidence mounts of just how difficult it is to turn around a school after giving it such a big jolt.

If Labour remain in power, I would expect the policies for failing schools to consist of rather more carrot than stick than at present.

Vacancy for agent provocateur

I also predict the schools inspectorate, Ofsted, will have a much lower profile in the coming year. It will remain a tough watchdog of standards but Mike Tomlinson is unlikely to make the same waves as Chris Woodhead.

Mike Tomlinson
Mike Tomlinson: Not Chris Woodhead
As for the latter, I suspect we will see some powerful assaults on Labour although, once the election is over, Mr Woodhead's news value will probably ebb a little.

Who will take Mr Woodhead's place as the provoker-in-chief of arguments on education?

David Hargreaves has been disappointingly quiet since taking over at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Will he re-open the debate on whether we still need a national examination at age 16?

One issue that is likely to open the New Year, and to continue throughout it, is teacher shortages. This is something which could really knock the government off its agenda.

If more than a handful of schools start to move to a four-day week, or take other drastic staffing measures, the dam could burst.

Several areas of the country are already reporting a desperate recruitment situation. Ministers are jittery.

Watch this space.

  • Mike Baker will be writing a regular column for BBC News Online's education section from the New Year.

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    See also:

    01 Dec 00 | Education
    New Ofsted chief says sorry
    06 Jun 00 | UK Politics
    Hague promises to tackle school 'thugs'
    14 Dec 00 | Education
    Testing times ahead for US schools
    06 Sep 00 | Education
    Private state school starts work
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