Amid distinct signs of unease within sections of the Tory party over Mr Patten's strategy, the largest teaching union, the National Union of Teachers, called for a boycott of this year's tests for seven and 14-year-olds.
The action, affecting 1.2 million children in 24,000 schools, would continue into next year if the tests remain 'educationally unsound and cause excessive workload', according to a union strategy which won unanimous support at the NUT's annual conference in Brighton.
Doug McAvoy, the union's general secretary, called on Mr Patten to abort this year's tests: 'The conference vote ought to be taken seriously by the Secretary of State. There should be no doubt in his mind that people at this conference are expressing the views of teachers throughout England and Wales.'
Shortly after the NUT vote, Mr Patten said that it had been a 'most damaging decision for children, parents and schools which will devalue the national curriculum and testing'.
It was an unnecessary confrontation, Mr Patten said, adding: 'It seems to me that, by calling for a two-year boycott, the NUT is really hell-bent on stopping the introduction of the national curriculum and totally halting testing. It reveals that they are implacably against regular paper- and-pencil testing of the basics.'
Ministers insist they have the overwhelming backing of Tory backbenchers after Mr Patten's promise last week to review the national curriculum. Downing Street made clear that Mr Major was backing his Education Secretary - appointed a year ago this week. But there were signs of edginess about the Government's strategy in some quarters. One of Mr Patten's senior colleagues said the Cabinet would back him but he had not helped his case by declining to meet more teachers and make more of a public case for tests earlier in the year. 'He was trying to establish his right wing credentials,' the minister said.
Alan Haselhurst, a vice-chairman of the Tory backbench education committee, said last night: 'I am extremely worried about the gulf which is opening up between most of the teaching profession and the Secretary of State. I wonder how it is going to be possible to have meaningful tests this year if, in large parts of the country, no action is going to be taken.' Mr Haselhurst urged Mr Patten to get the 'broad mass' of them on his side. 'A constructive dialogue is the only way to produce a series of tests in which there is widespread confidence.'
Mr Haselhurst said the government was quite right to insist on the levering up of literacy standards. But he said: 'The chopping and changing has cost us dear among many teachers who can, by no stretch of the imagination, be called militant.'
Sir Rhodes Boyson, a former schools minister, strongly criticised the unions' long-standing opposition to testing but the tests that were planned were 'far too complicated'. He added that the Government would have to wait until next week, when the Court of Appeal is to decide on whether to overturn a ruling that the boycott is lawful. 'Whatever the Court of Appeal decides, it will be a new ball game.'
Sir Rhodes said he understood the Government's reluctance to back down on the tests because the unions would then think it was 'on the run' on the issue. Mr Patten intends to appeal to parents to back him in his struggle against the teachers' unions. Sir Rhodes said yesterday, however, that one problem for the Governmment was that its policy of local management for schools had brought teachers and parents closer together.
The Government now appears set for a long drawn-out confrontation with the three main teachers' unions. The National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers is already boycotting the national curriculum tests for 14-year-olds, which some teachers say are flawed. The traditionally-moderate Association of Teachers and Lecturers is about to ballot members and is expected to join the boycott. Head teachers' organisations have made clear that they would do nothing to circumvent industrial action by staff.
Mr Patten will report to the Cabinet on Thursday and address the backbench education committee shortly after Parliament comes back on Wednesday. However, ministers will not decide whether to try to introduce any legal sanctions to prevent the boycott until after the Court of Appeal decision, which centres on the NAS/UWT boycott in Wandsworth, south London.
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