Listening day leaves Patten unmoved

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The Independent Online
John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, spent an unprecedented day yesterday. For four hours he did little but listen.

First he listened to trade union leaders who claim to represent teachers; that took up nearly three hours. Then he listened to a medley of organisations which purport to represent parents; they used up rather less of his time.

Educationists were at first inclined to hail Mr Patten's listening day as the symptom of a great shift in Government policy. After all, they have been saying for nearly 10 months that, if only the Government would listen, everything would be different. But what they meant was, if only the Government would listen and change its mind. Mr Patten showed no sign of wanting to go that far.

The unions argued that, if only Mr Patten would listen to the profession's 'legitimate concerns' he would realise that this summer's English tests for 14-year-olds were unworkable.

Parent-teacher associations argued that, if only Mr Patten would listen to them, he would see that real people care less about league tables than spending cuts.

There was one group to which he was not willing to listen at all, until it stops threatening to boycott his tests: the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. But, that exception apart, the day showed some improvement in the tenor of the education debate. The last time the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations asked to meet Mr Patten they gave him 48 hours notice, no time at all for him to rearrange his diary. He took revenge by popping up on the BBC to condemn the PTAs as 'neanderthal'.

Yesterday, after meeting the unions, Mr Patten's office issued a statement: 'He had listened carefully to the views expressed and would reflect on them.' But, 'Mr Patten reaffirmed the Government's firm commitment to testing at the ages of seven, 11, 14 and 16.'

In other words: Mr Patten had listened, would reflect . . . but was not minded to change his mind.