Page last updated at 10:30 GMT, Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Educational review of the decade

By Mike Baker

Soas fees protest
Introducing tuition fees has been one of the most enduring policies

So education is leaving the "noughties" behind - but which of the many changes of the past decade are durable enough to last the next 10 years?

Educational change now comes so fast that it is hard to distinguish the significant from the ephemeral.

For each year of this decade my review of the previous 12 months has appeared here. Looking back over these annual reviews has been a salutary experience.

With the benefit of a longer view, some of the events that seemed worth noting at the time now seem transitory and unimportant. Yet others have stood the test of time.

And some smaller, incremental changes that seemed unimportant year by year have steadily transformed educational practice.

In my review of the year 2000, one of the big events was the parental ballot on whether Ripon Grammar School should remain selective.

Legendary Laura

This was the first - and, as it turned out, the last - of the grammar school ballots promised for England by the newly elected Labour government. Parents voted for the status quo.

It soon became clear that, perhaps by deliberate design, the whole machinery of the ballots was designed to make them hard to organise and made the prospects of change very slight. Since then, the ballot machinery has gathered dust.

By contrast, another of the highlights of 2000 has proved more durable.

Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, made one of his first forays into education policy when he criticised an Oxford college for rejecting an application from a well-qualified comprehensive school pupil, Laura Spence.

Laura Spence
Laura Spence ended up going to Harvard after Oxford rejected her

Since then the issues of widening participation and fair admissions have remained high profile and controversial. After the Schwarz Review in 2004, there has been progress on making the university admissions process more transparent.

However, relatively little has happened to bring about another of Schwarz's recommendations, namely the move to a post-qualifications admissions system, with admissions decisions based on actual rather than predicted grades.

So what change has the decade brought to Oxford's admissions?

In 2001 the proportion of undergraduates admitted from state schools and colleges was 53.2%. In 2008 (the most recent available) it was 55.4%. So a big fuss, not a lot of change.

In my review of 2000 I briefly highlighted the launch of a new type of school: the City Academy. At that stage, these new state-funded independent schools were no more than a proposal.

However, the first three Academies opened in 2002. There are now 200 with a further 100 due to open in 2010.

The usual game of political musical chairs has kept up its pace

Back in March 2000, I wrote that Labour had stolen the idea from the Tories' City Technology Colleges.

Now it seems things are going full circle, with David Cameron's Conservatives keen to expand the programme through their "New Academies" proposals.

Looking across the decade, the usual game of political musical chairs has kept up its pace, with no fewer than eight Cabinet ministers taking the helm at education.

In the schools sector we started out with David Blunkett and ended with Ed Balls, with Estelle Morris, Charles Clarke, Ruth Kelly and Alan Johnson along the way.

Meanwhile, after higher and further education (FE) were split from schools in 2007 to form the short-lived Department for Innovation Universities and Skills, we have had John Denham and Lord Mandelson running the other parts of education.

'Student fees'

But as ministers have come and gone, some changes have left an indelible mark.

Perhaps the most notable has been the growing acceptance that undergraduates should pay towards the cost of the university courses.

Although the methods and costs vary across the UK, the principle of students making a contribution is now well established.

The big step was taken just before the decade began, when Labour introduced fees and abolished grants, but the so-called "top up" fees were introduced in England in 2006, after the government narrowly avoided defeat in the House of Commons over the issue in 2004.

The decade began with the then Prime Minister Tony Blair calling for a review of student finance at his 2001 party conference, following the tough time Labour candidates had received on the doorstep during the general election that year.

At the time, the idea of a graduate tax was being floated by government sources. But, in the end, ministers fought shy of anything with the word "tax" in it and opted for the misnamed "variable fees" scheme.

Now we end the decade with another review under way in England.

Yet, in a sign of the shift in attitudes, the National Union of Students is now campaigning for a graduate tax to replace the current system.

'Benevolent decade'

But what about the big changes that failed to happen?

One of the biggest must be the government's failure to accept the Tomlinson Review, which in 2005 proposed an overarching qualification to cover all existing 14-19 qualifications, including GCSEs and A-levels.

But Downing Street, fearful of reforming the "gold standard" A-levels, diluted the plans.

So, Tomlinson's plan was reduced to the introduction of a new applied learning qualification, the Diploma, whose long-term future still looks uncertain as we enter a new decade.

But there have been quieter, stealthier changes that have transformed the educational landscape.

One of the most significant has been the huge growth in the number of teaching assistants employed in schools.

There are now around 120,000 more classroom assistants than a decade ago and the number of other administrative staff in schools has doubled.

For teachers this has coincided with one significant change: guaranteed non-teaching time during the school day for preparation and planning.

Electronic whiteboards are now commonplace in schools

For education as a whole, the "noughties" have been benevolent in funding terms.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), total spending increased by 120% between 1996 and 2008.

However, after taking account of increased prices, the ONS puts the increase in staff, resources and capital (what it calls the "volume of education inputs") at a more modest, but still significant, 33%.

But not all areas of education have shared equally in this.

Adult education has been particularly badly hit by the policy, introduced after the Leitch Report on skills in 2006, of shifting FE resources towards economically valuable skills for 16 to 19-year-olds.

Universities, too, have seen their funding per student fall in real terms.

Technological change attracts fewer headlines, but has steadily transformed aspects of teaching and learning.

'Turkey Twizzlers'

Electronic whiteboards are now commonplace in schools, replacing the chalk and blackboard.

And in the university sector, the Open University has just marked the ten millionth download of its educational content by students using iTunes, a technology that did not exist at the start of the decade.

The decade has brought numerous other changes: the decline in pupils taking foreign languages after 14, the Every Child Matters agenda that has broadened the responsibility of schools, and the new emphasis on "safeguarding", following the murder of two girls by school caretaker Ian Huntley at Soham in 2001.

Some things are still with us, though: Sats are still here (just) and Ofsted continues to cause controversy, although Chris Woodhead, its most famous head, left in 2000.

But Turkey Twizzlers are no longer on the school dinner menu and for that, at least, we should be truly thankful.

Mike Baker is an education writer and broadcaster. BBC Radio 4 recently broadcast his three-part history of primary schools.

Print Sponsor

What are the fees review choices?
09 Nov 09 |  Education
Academies accused of dumbing down
14 Dec 09 |  Education
Turkey Twizzler sales biting back
23 Mar 05 |  Education
Oxford was right, says Laura
17 Jul 01 |  Education

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific