Ed Balls held out the prospect of scrapping controversial national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds for the first time yesterday.
The Schools Secretary paved the way for the test to be replaced by internal teacher classroom assessments – thus softening his previous stance on SATs which are taken by 600,000 children in English, maths and science every year.
His move comes as ministers face the threat of a boycott of them by both heads and teachers next May.
In an announcement yesterday coinciding with a shake-up of the primary school curriculum, Mr Balls announced that – from next year – primary school league tables would carry both the test results and teachers' own assessments of their pupils' performance.
The following year there would be "light touch checks" on the accuracy of the teachers' assessment after they had received more training in how to deliver them.
Mr Balls gave a strong hint that they could eventually replace the tests if they were considered robust and accurate enough. "I'm not closing the door and I'm not going to compromise our commitment to parents that they will have objective and reliable information about their child's progress in school," he said.
A government review of testing carried out last year recommended the tests should continue, arguing that "at the moment" teacher assessment was not robust enough to take over from the tests.
Mr Balls indicated the new strategy had been drawn up after discussions with Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) – one of the unions involved in the threatened boycott.
However, neither the NAHT nor the National Union of Teachers (NUT) – which is also sounding out its members about a boycott – felt yesterday's move was enough to lead to them calling it off.
The NAHT welcomed yesterday's move but Mr Brookes added: "The concerns of my colleagues and parents are for children in year six [11-year-olds] now. We still have a way to go before we reach the situation wherein children will have the best possible education in year six, uncluttered by the need to rehearse SAT tests."
The union believes its case was vindicated last week by a report from Ofqual, the exams watchdog, which showed one in six of the marks awarded for science tests were wrong.
Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, said that Mr Balls' comments that testing and assessment were "not set in stone" were welcome.
However, she added: "His enthusiasm to tell us that he wants what 'works best for pupils and schools' is not borne out by his decision to both maintain the SATs next year and publish the results."
The unions' main concerns are that the publication of league tables based on the test results leads to too much teaching to the tests in the last year of primary school.
Most secondary schools re-test children on entry because they do not believe the test results are an accurate reflection of pupils' abilities as a result of the amount of coaching that goes on.
Meanwhile, white working class boys did worst in this year's tests in maths and English, according to figures released yesterday.
Only 48 per cent reached the required standard in the two subjects – compared with 71.8 per cent overall.
The overall figure was down from 72.7 peer cent last year.
Will it be enough to head off a boycott by teachers?
Q. Why is there so much controversy over the national curriculum tests?
A. Teachers and heads believe that because SATs are used to judge schools in league tables it leads to too much teaching to the test in the final year at primary school. Also, many children are awarded the wrong grades.
Q. Will Ed Balls' intervention be enough to head off a boycott of them next year?
A. At present, it doesn't look as though it would be, with both the NUT and NAHT rebuffing him. However, there would still have to be a ballot of heads and teachers next year – leaving time for further negotiation.
Q. What will happen if the Conservatives win the next election and Michael Gove becomes Schools Secretary? Will he press ahead with the tests?
A. He has floated the idea of transferring the tests to the first term of secondary schooling. Secondary schools already retest pupils on arrival because they don't trust the SATs results and the results could be traced back to feeder primary schools to produce league tables.
Q. Should my child be revising for the tests next spring then?
A. No, they are supposed to be a snapshot of what a child can do. Among other things they are supposed to show whether pupils need help with the basics. Coaching and revising for the tests means you get a distorted picture of what a child can do. The results are never going to count for a job interview on leaving school.