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From Guardian.co.uk

Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Ringing the changes (buffy mention)

By Polly Curtis

Friday 24 December 2004, by Webmaster

It started off quietly enough. But before the end of 2004 schools would be at the centre of the government’s spending plans, a ministerial row with the monarchy and a reshuffle prompted by political scandal.

In January, the publication of the first "value-added" tables based on the improvement pupils make between the ages of seven and 11 ended the selective schools’ monopoly on the top 10 league table places and offered the first proof that comprehensive schools improve pupils’ prospects the most.

More depressingly, however, in February, Ofsted announced that more schools than ever were being labelled failures in inspection reports. In the last term of 2003 there was a 10% jump to a total of 311 failing schools.

But that was soon forgotten when Mike Tomlinson, former head of Ofsted, published his interim report on the future of 14 to 19 education on February 17. The report detailed plans for a diploma that would "absorb" the current A-levels and GCSEs. But more on that later.

Come March, and David Bell, the chief inspector of schools, was branching out into new areas. In a speech to mark international women’s day, he suggested that the media should provide stronger female role models, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to help inspire girls to fulfil their potential at school and in their future careers. Despite doing better at school, however, they are still being pushed into traditional female roles. Unlike Buffy.

There was a lot to celebrate later that month, when the chancellor revealed an 8.5bn funding boost for schools. In England, this meant that state funding per pupil would rise from 4,500 in 2004 to 5,500 by the end of the next three-year spending round - twice the level of 1997. The announcement was warmly welcomed by headteachers - particularly after the funding crisis in 2003, which left many faced with dilemmas about redundancies.

The first big row of the year came when the education secretary, Charles Clarke, snubbed the National Union of Teachers’ annual conference - his second non-appearance in a row. The Department for Education and Skills insisted there was "no drama". But it didn’t go down well with Doug McAvoy, the union’s long-serving out-going general secretary, for whom it was the last conference in the top job. Mr Clarke insists he has better things to do on the Easter bank holiday, but he can never quite remember what.

Row number two followed soon after, between the artist Tracey Emin and Ecclesbourne primary school in what became known as Blanket-gate. Education Guardian revealed that the artist was refusing to allow the school to sell a blanket she made with some of its pupils. Emin was reported to be "extremely upset and depressed by the news" that Ecclesbourne hoped to raise 35,000 for art projects by selling the blanket at Sotheby’s. In the end she agreed to pay the costs of framing and storing it at the school - something the school’s head claimed it couldn’t afford.

It seemed to be a springtime of rows. There was the West Midlands school that had to suspend a teacher after he declared his candidacy in the June European elections for the far-right British National Party. Then there was the Nottinghamshire school where a 14-year-old pupil had an abortion after receiving advice from a school health visitor, but without telling her parents.

The education world lost a well-loved and respected leader when, on May 22, Eamonn O’Kane, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, died after a battle with cancer. The prime minister, Tony Blair, described Mr O’Kane as a "distinguished leader of his union who gave an enormous amount to the teaching profession". Estelle Morris, the former education secretary, said: "At the end of the day he really cared about what happened to children in schools, and it showed in everything he did and said."

June’s announcement of 1,460 job cuts at the DfES - and more at Ofsted - proved quite dramatic as it took with it the department’s standards and effectiveness unit, the key driver of the Blair government’s first term of education reform.

That was followed swiftly by the announcement of "shorter and sharper, lighter touch" inspections by Ofsted. Schools will now get two days notice and inspections will take place every three years rather than six. Headteachers grinned broadly.

July saw the launch of the government’s five-year plan for education - pulling together its range of policies into one document. The headlines were all about the return to "traditional values" with Mr Clarke championing school uniforms and private school-style house systems. But the broader story was about the extension of the specialist schools programme and the foundation schools programme, and the 200 new academies that were promised by the end of the decade.

Steve Sinnott, only just elected the new general secretary of the NUT, led the condemnation of the plans, which would see every school granted permission to become an "independent specialist" school. Critics saw the plans as a threat to the comprehensive system, and academies as selling schools off "on the cheap" to private sponsors.

But by the end of the summer term headteachers were worried about other things. Like the fact they hadn’t received the 627,000 results of the key stage three English tests. And if they had the results were "haywire". By August the planned publication of the results had been abandoned and an independent review set up. On November 18, Jonathan Ford quit as the managing director of the National Assessment Agency (NAA) - an arm of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), which oversees the results - after the report pinpointed the agency as being responsible. However, the DfES was also strongly criticised for failing to adopt a more "hands-on" role in delivering the 2004 tests.

August 19 and the annual row over the "no-fail" A-levels set in. The 96% pass rate - and nearly one in four an A - set tongues wagging again about dumbing down. Wait for Tomlinson’s final report, the government said.

The new September term brought claims that black schoolboys were being betrayed by the school system. The research, commissioned by the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, revealed that young black boys in school felt discriminated against and stereotyped, which "severely hindered" them and led to their comparatively poor results.

Elsewhere, Eton College and Clarence House were forced to join forces in October to deny allegations made at an employment tribunal by a former art teacher that she improperly helped Prince Harry secure an A-level pass in art two years ago. Her allegations surfaced in the News of the World (where else?).

Finally, Mike Tomlinson published his final recommendations for the 14 to 19 diploma and it immediately kicked off a row about whether the government would back-up its central recommendation to melt A-levels and GCSEs into the overarching award. The names A-levels and GCSEs would stay, insisted the prime minister, the defender of the gold standard, while Mr Tomlinson insisted that "cherry picking" his plan would undermine it. A white paper should resolve the issue in the new year.

In November, the education secretary broke the longstanding protocol that ministers do not criticise the royal family. After the publication of a note from Prince Charles, in which he questioned "child-centred" education and "a learning culture" for seeking to push people without "the natural ability" to attempt to rise above their station, Mr Clarke hit back.

He said he did not want to get into a "tangle" with the prince, but went on: "To be quite frank I think he is very old-fashioned and out of time and he doesn’t understand what is going on in the British education system at the moment. And I think he should think carefully before intervening in that debate."

It was to be Mr Clarke’s final row at the DfES, because, last week he became home secretary. The fallout of the Blunkett "affair" resulted in a shift in ministers at the department. Mr Clarke out, the "unknown quantity" Ruth Kelly in. "We just don’t know" was the general verdict on the youngest ever female secretary of state - although her strong Catholic beliefs have left those involved in sex education policy a little nervous.

Meanwhile, unions were left to lament the loss of the popular schools standards minister, David Miliband, who was shuffled out of the DfES and into the cabinet office. Stephen Twigg’s promotion to the post was, however, welcomed, although Derek Twigg’s appointment to Stephen’s junior post was met with confused stares.

But each is likely to show their mettle in the new year; there’s a white paper on 14 to 19 education, a green paper on skills and undoubtedly another row over standards when A-levels are published in the summer. And, not least, a general election which, with Mr Miliband behind the scenes, should have education written all over it. Merry Christmas.