However, the concessions went only half way to cooling teachers' anger: union leaders said their boycott would go ahead because the Secretary of State for Education had refused to back down on this year's assessments. He told the Commons they would stay because those for seven-year-olds were working and last year's pilot tests for 14-year-olds were well received.
Mr Patten added that Sir Ron Dearing, chairman of the curriculum and assessment authorities, needed results to inform his curriculum review.
Most teacher union leaders accepted that the changes were significant. The requirement on primary teachers to assess classroom work in technology, history and geography will be lifted, and will not be introduced for music, art and physical education, enabling teachers to 'concentrate on the basics'. Tests for 11- year-olds in English, mathematics and science will run as a national pilot, and the introduction of history and geography tests for 14-year-olds will be postponed.
The most important potential shift was Mr Patten's request that Sir Ron advise on the balance between tests and teachers' assessments, and 'consider carefully' whether tests need external marking. Sir Ron said last night: 'I have been doing three weeks and two days of listening to teachers, and this is the result.'
Mr Patten's statement was well received on both sides of the Commons. Ann Taylor, Labour's education spokeswoman, welcomed the climbdown, but she and others said it made this year's 'obstinate and arrogant' inflexibility all the more incredible. 'Why is the Secretary of State persisting in trying to make guinea pigs of our children this year?' she asked.
Opposition criticism was shared privately by some ministers and Tory MPs, whose hopes of a tactical retreat had been raised by newspaper reports that the Prime Minister had 'ordered' or was 'examining' plans to make this year's tests voluntary.
John Major told MPs that he stood 'four-square' behind Mr Patten - reassurance lacking when John Smith asked three times whether Norman Lamont would deliver this year's second Budget, in December.
Mr Patten is expected to be moved to a less sensitive cabinet post in a summer shuffle. Mr Lamont defends himself against persistent sniping at the Scottish Conservative Party conference today, but few ministers believe the Chancellor can survive recriminations heaped on him after last week's election disasters.
Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said Mr Patten had put important concessions on the agenda. Nigel de Gruchy, for the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, called it 'a significant breakthrough' that would reduce teachers' workload.
Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, which announces its boycott ballot result tomorrow, said: 'Once again Mr Patten is dictating top down without consultation, ignoring the wishes of parents and the views of teachers.'
The Tories fell to their lowest rating for seven years last night, an ICM poll in the Guardian (last month in brackets) showing: Labour 43 per cent (46), Conservatives 29 (34), Lib Dems 23 (15). ICM interviewed 1,458 voters face-to-face on Friday and Saturday.
Inside Parliament, page 6
Leading article; Letters, page 19Reuse content