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 Tuesday, 17 December, 2002, 09:32 GMT
Turbulent times in education
Estelle Morris
It was goodbye from her

2002 has been a big-dipper ride for education, full of thrills and spills.

It has brought: the teacher vetting fiasco, the A-level inquiry, the "death threat" exclusions, teachers' strikes, and anxiety over university "top-up" fees.

There have been celebrated casualties: the sacking of Sir William Stubbs, the head of the QCA examinations watchdog, and the dramatic resignation of the Education Secretary, Estelle Morris.

The warning signs of the impending storm were spotted in January as students took the early A and AS-level exams. The strain on an overloaded system showed as papers were found to contain errors, some making them impossible to answer.

Amy Gehring
Back to Canada for her

February showed it would be a strange year as a Canadian supply teacher was thrust into the tabloid limelight.

Amy Gehring was cleared of indecently assaulting two under-age brothers but later admitted having had sex with another student, aged 16.

Head teachers demanded tighter checks at supply agencies; it was a foretaste of a bigger row over teacher vetting.

Unusually, the Easter teachers union conferences were relatively subdued affairs, overshadowed in the media by the death of the Queen Mother.

Patricia Amos
A 60-day jail sentence for her

Education correspondents returned to the law courts in May when Patricia Amos became the first parent imprisoned under new truancy laws.

She was initially sentenced to 60 days for persistently failing to ensure her daughters' attendance, although this was reduced on appeal.

Crime and punishment featured again in June, as the exam board Edexcel called in police to investigate the theft of GCSE papers.

Farzana Akbar, a teacher from south London, was later jailed for three months after admitting having stolen them to help students.

Vetting crisis

Yet even these events paled into relative insignificance as the tragic murder of two schoolgirls in Soham focused attention on the vetting of school staff.

A mid-August decision was made to tighten up criminal checks on school staff. But the Criminal Records Bureau couldn't cope.

The backlog grew. When term began schools were forced to close or send pupils home as new staff twiddled their thumbs awaiting clearance.

It began a rocky period for Estelle Morris. No sooner had she returned from holiday to ease the vetting rules, than she was hit by the A-level crisis.

A-level crisis

Despite record A and AS-level pass rates, there had been complaints from schools that many students had been given lower-than-expected grades.

The temperature rose as head teachers accused the QCA of having pressurised the exam boards into depressing pass rates to avoid charges that the exams had become too easy.

Mike Tomlinson
He had to figure out the A-level standard

Estelle Morris requested an inquiry by the QCA but, under continued pressure, eventually conceded an independent inquiry, run by former chief schools inspector, Mike Tomlinson.

Before Mr Tomlinson could report, the chairman of the QCA, Sir William Stubbs, appeared on the BBC's Ten O'Clock News to accuse the government of pre-empting the inquiry's outcome by telling the exam boards to prepare for a re-grading exercise.

This was a direct challenge to Estelle Morris's integrity from one of her most senior advisers.

Two days later, as Mike Tomlinson published his report, the education secretary sacked Sir William. Feeling he had been made a scapegoat, he refused to go quietly.

Meanwhile Mr Tomlinson described the A and AS-level system as "an accident waiting to happen".

Later, he announced that the work of almost 100,000 students was being re-graded.

In the end, 1,220 students were given higher A-level grades and 733 students were upgraded at AS-level. All had taken papers from the OCR board.

Within a fortnight Estelle Morris was gone. The A-level crisis had taken its toll, although there were other factors too.

She was embarrassed that she had unwittingly misled Parliament over her promise to resign if the targets for 11-year-olds were missed (which they were).

She feared a critical report on the costly Individual Learning Accounts debacle and was unhappy at the prospect of allowing "top-up" fees in universities.

Above all, candid as ever, she simply felt she was not up to the job.

Top-up fees

It was a sad departure for a minister regarded by most as straightforward, honest and dedicated to education.

Her successor, Charles Clarke, was barely installed before he was embroiled in an explosive row over university fees.

The ink appeared to be dry on a policy permitting universities to charge "top-up" fees - Downing Street's favoured approach - but Clarke won more time.

The "Strategy Paper on Higher Education" is now due in January.

Whether it is "top-up" fees, a higher flat-rate fee or some form of graduate tax, student finance will be a major issue at the next election.

2003 could pack as much political dynamite as 2002.

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See also:

02 May 02 | Education
23 May 02 | Education
06 Sep 02 | Education
25 Oct 02 | Education
06 Dec 02 | Education
04 Dec 02 | Education
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