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Riots, reviews and results: Why 2011 will prove to be a steep learning curve for students and teachers

It's been a tumultuous 12 months thanks to a new Government with big ideas. Richard Garner gives his end-of-year report

In higher education, it was a rerun of the radical Sixties, with student protests over the plan to almost triple tuition fees allowing universities to charge up to £9,000 a year. It was an anxious year therefore for the Liberal Democrats, highlighted by the fact that Business Secretary Vince Cable seemed to change his mind three times in the space of 24 hours over how he was going to vote in the debate on raising fees.

He first said he might abstain, despite introducing the measure to the Commons, then told his local paper he would vote for it and followed up by saying the Lib Dems had not yet agreed its line. In the end, he had little option but to vote for it, having praised it as the best option available on first unveiling the plans.

All this prompted Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, to say he seemed to have made so many turns that he looked like he was auditioning for a part in Strictly Come Dancing. In fact, he had been – he took centre stage in the show's Christmas special.

It was not an easy year for Porter either. He had to tread a careful line between praising the peaceful protesters and condemning the violence. His erstwhile lack of support for student occupations lost him support within the student movement. However, he cut an impressive figure on the wider political stage and restored the NUS to a level of prominence that it had not enjoyed since the late Sixties.

As we approach the New Year, it looks as though 2011 will see repeats of the violent scenes of the last two months, as the issue of fees continues to dominate the headlines, with universities gradually revealing what they will charge. Just over £7,000 on average seems a fair bet.

By comparison, schools had a quieter year. Only by comparison, though. The whiff of radical change was in the air there as well. It was out with the old and in with the new for both primary and secondary education. Out, during 2010, went Labour's review of the primary school curriculum which, among other things, made learning a language compulsory for all children from the age of seven from September 2011. What will replace it is, as yet, unclear, but at least Education Secretary Michael Gove has signalled his intention of restoring languages – ancient or modern – to a prominent position in the curriculum.

Out, too, went the much-maligned "nappy curriculum", with its emphasis on a checklist of more than 100 things a child should be able to do before starting compulsory schooling. These included counting to 10, reading simple sentences and even tying their own shoelaces. Again, what will replace it is not quite clear. A review, under the leadership of Dame Clare Tickell, chief executive of Action for Children, will be published in the New Year.

As for in with the new, the first changes of 2011 will come with the publication of the secondary school exam league tables in January. They will take up the theme of Mr Gove's much-vaunted English Baccalaureate – granting a certificate to all pupils who have five A* to C grade GCSEs in English, maths, a science, a language – ancient or modern again – and a humanities subject. The actual Baccalaureate certificate will not be issued to children until 2013, but the tables will for the first time show the percentage of youngsters in each school who would have achieved it. Expect it to be low.

The plan, though, has created some controversy, as several science and language courses have been omitted as ineligible for inclusion – the applied sciences and languages GCSEs. In addition, religious education will not qualify as a humanities subject – only history or geography. It does seem wrong to write off the applied courses. They were introduced as a means of getting more youngsters interested in the two subjects by applying them in a more practical way for the modern world. Scores of youngsters who have taken them have gone on to study the subjects at A-level or university.

The next "new" coming in will be whatever legislation follows the publication of Mr Gove's White Paper in November. This will herald changes to teacher training – making it more classroom-based, removing funding for those with a third degree to go on teacher training courses and tougher tests in the three Rs that any would-be teacher will have to pass.

It will be interesting to see how closely the legislation follows the tone of the White Paper – whether the Government's priorities will be repeated parrot fashion or whether ministers will bend the knee to some of the criticism, notably the fact that teacher training colleges received a clean bill of health for outstanding work by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, on the day before the White Paper was published.

To give us a clue as to how the court of Michael Gove might behave, it is instructive to look at the White Paper itself. On at least a couple of occasions, he appears to have watered down previous proposals as a result of the lobbying from the education world.

The first was over independent appeals panels into exclusions. The rhetoric was clear during the election: no two ways about it – they would be abolished. There were howls of protests from headteachers – the very people he was trying to help – who claimed all that would do is drive parents of excluded pupils into the hands of the lawyers as their only recourse to challenge a decision they might think unjust.

The results? They will not be abolished. Their powers will be watered down so they can only recommend that an excluded pupil should be reinstated rather than order it. In addition, though, they can fine a school if it has incorrectly carried out the procedures for expelling a pupil.

Then there is the case of AS-levels. Mr Gove's first instinct was to abolish them in an attempt to cut down on the exam burden faced by our pupils. He thought they were unloved and would not be missed, but came up against opposition from university admissions tutors – notably Dr Geoff Parks, from Cambridge University – who pointed out that they were the only post-GCSE evidence of a youngster's ability that an admissions tutor has access to at the time he or she has to make a decision on whether to admit a pupil.

The result? No mention is made of AS-levels in the White Paper, although there is to be a review of A-levels aimed at giving universities more control over the setting of questions. Sounds like it could lead to a level-headed change of heart to me. Officially, the position is they are still under review. However, all this appears to give Mr Gove credit for some flexibility in his thinking when the evidence from the professionals is stacked up against him.

We will know more when the legislation is produced – although sources have been stressing a White Paper is not a consultation paper. In addition, the legislation is likely to be announced early in January, giving precious little time for new thinking.

During the year, too, we will see how successful Mr Gove has been in his attempts to revolutionise the structure of education in this country. His first act on coming to power was to encourage all schools to seek academy status. He appeared to come a cropper over this by saying that around 1,500 schools wanted to switch to academy status – thus running their own affairs – when, in fact, that figure only referred to the number of schools that had visited a website giving them more information about the idea. In the end, it was nearer 150 that actually switched in September.

Similarly, too, he was accused of over-egging the pudding over his plans to allow a network of "free" schools to be set up in the UK – run by parents, teachers and faith groups, among others. At present, 25 have been given the green light to try and set themselves up by next September.

If I were a betting man, I would put more money on his academies drive succeeding than witnessing a plethora of "free" schools being set up around the UK. As the number of maintained schools in a local authority dwindles with schools seeking academy status, so too does the authority's ability to provide adequate back-up services to the remainder. We are already nearly in a house of cards situation in some authorities. In addition, the number applying to become academies has grown to 333, with 64 applications being made in the last week of term alone.

Of course, the other imponderable "new" in the next financial year is what the impact of spending cuts will be on education. Despite the Coalition's boast of protecting spending at the chalkface, there will be winners and losers this year – notably as a result of the introduction of the "pupil premium", giving schools more cash for taking in disadvantaged pupils. Much of this will effectively be recycled from one school to another. One cannot argue with the motives of the Government here, but expect howls of anguish from those schools, probably the majority, facing cuts.

So far, Mr Gove has escaped the amount of flak faced by his Coalition partner Mr Cable for the decision to raise tuition fees. He has had some – notably over cuts to the school building programme, where his department got the names of some of the programmes wrong, and over axeing funding for school sports partnerships, where he was forced to announce a partial U-turn to secure them for another year following protests it made a mockery of using the London Olympics as a spur to greater sporting endeavour.

However, if the cuts begin to bite as the year proceeds, it could be he ain't seen nothing yet.


January: Exam league tables show what percentage of pupils would have gained the English Baccalaureate. New legislation unveiled highlighting teacher training reforms and improved discipline in schools. Details of review of national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds emerge.

March: Universities begin assessing how much they will be charging when the rise in tuition fees comes in in autumn 2012.

April/May: Extent of teacher and headteacher opposition to cuts becomes clear as unions hold their annual conferences. School by school surveys will reveal how deep cuts in budgets in "loser" schools will be.

June/July: Figures emerge for the number of new academies and "free" schools that will be opened in September.

August: A-level and GCSE results improve. (Bearing in mind that this may be nothing to do with the Coalition as it happens every year.)

September/October: Students begin applying to university for 2012 – the first year for which the new tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year can be charged.

December: The impact of the rise in tuition fees will emerge, with the latest statistics on student applications from UCAS.