Thousands of schoolchildren across England were forced to wait up to four months for exam results as this year’s Sats descended into chaos. In the most damaging episode since Ed Balls became Schools Secretary, as many as a quarter of the 1.2m pupils aged 11 and 14 sitting exams failed to get marks on time. It prompted the sacking of ETS Europe (the private firm responsible for delivering Sats), two major reviews into the marking system and the eventual axing of tests for 14-year-olds.
Another private contractor, another Balls up. This time thousands of 16 and 17-year-olds were left waiting at least three months following delays to the award of college grants. The fiasco, which surrounded the weekly £30 Education Maintenance Allowance, handed to sixth-formers from deprived backgrounds, allowing them to remain in education rather than getting a job, led to the sacking of contractor Liberata. In early December, 100,000 students were still waiting for money, leading to fears many will be forced to drop out of courses.
September saw the launch of the Government’s new diploma qualifications. Ed Balls said diplomas - combining classroom theory and work-based learning - would eventually become the “qualification of choice” for 14 to 19-year-olds, perhaps replacing GCSEs and A-levels altogether. But, to date, most students have chosen to shun the qualifications altogether. Just 10,000 teenagers started the first five diplomas this year, in media, health, construction, IT and engineering - a quarter of the original estimate.
Education for the very youngest was also subject to radical reform. From September, all nursery and pre-school classes for under-fives in England were forced to follow the Early Years Foundation Stage. The so-called “nappy curriculum” sets out 69 targets in literacy, numeracy, problem-solving and physical development children must meet before starting school. But critics say the demands of the EYFS are too prescriptive – and fail to allow children to develop naturally. Ministers are currently reviewing one of its most contentious literacy requirements, which test children’s ability to write simple sentences and use punctuation by the age of five.
Sex education compulsory
Another first as it was revealed sex and relationships education was to become compulsory in all primary and secondary schools. Children as young as five will get basic lessons in making friends, body parts and the biological differences between men and women, while from the age of seven upwards pupils will learn about the facts of life.
It comes despite fears that over-exposure to the subject at such an age will lead to the “sexualisation” of young people. A consultation is now going on into whether or not to allow parents to pull their children out of lessons.
Another major Government reform saw the creation of Ofqual, a new independent watchdog set up to vet exams and qualifications. The body had its own first test this summer when it was asked to intervene in a row over a science GCSE. Essentially, examiners who wrote the paper wanted a high pass mark - Ofqual demands it should be lowered. The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance was forced to drop the mark “under protest” - ensuring students needed just 20 per cent for a C grade. The Tories said Ofqual’s first act had not been to uphold standards “but the precise opposite”.
Oxbridge v Denham
The year was marked by a bitter war of words between Skills Secretary John Denham and Britain’s top two universities. Under Labour, all universities are obliged to increase the number of students admitted from poor backgrounds. Leading figures including Alison Richard, the Cambridge vice-chancellor, and Lord Patten, Oxford’s chancellor, used high profile speeches to insist the drive should not be at the expense of academic standards. It was met by claims by John Denham, the Universities Secretary, that top institutions were “outmoded”.
A class war broke out over new rules forcing private schools to prove their “public benefit” to hold on to their charitable status – a perk worth some £100m to the sector every year. In guidance published this year, they were told to offer more free places and master-classes to children whose families were unable to afford fees. Chris Parry, head of the Independent Schools Council, described it as a “missile aimed from the maintained sector into the independent sector”. In the interests of diplomacy, Mr Parry resigned from the ISC.
More conflict in the education system as the National Union of Teachers staged the first national teaching strike in 21 years. The NUT walk-out in April caused almost three million children to be sent home or taught on reduced timetables, a quarter of schools were closed and business leaders said the action cost up to £68m in lost working hours as parents took the day off to look after children. Ministers refused to cave into teachers’ demands for an improved annual salary – and further strikes were averted later in the year.
Labour’s plan to ensure equal access to the best state schools in England had its most spectacular work-out as councils effectively picked names from a hat to distribute the most sought-after places. It was designed to stop families simply buying expensive homes next to top schools to secure places for their children. Schools in Brighton and Northampton were among the first to employ Labour’s controversial admissions lotteries - prompting uproar among middle-class parents. Predictably, it led to fewer children getting into their favoured school. (By Graeme Paton)