Parliament and Politics: Patten stands firm on tests for 14-year-olds: Inside Parliament

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Any 14-year-olds who returned to school this week after the Easter holidays with lingering hopes that the Government would bow to pressure from the educational establishment and drop this summer's tests had them dashed in the House of Commons yesterday.

John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, rejected a Labour call to think again about using 14-year- olds as 'guinea pigs' for tests he has admitted are flawed while John Major condemned any attempt by teachers to 'sabotage' the tests.

'A boycott of testing would certainly not be in the interests of our children. We need tests and we need them this year,' the Prime Minister insisted at Question Time. Britain's principal competitors had national curriculae and regular testing. 'I believe any attempt to sabotage our reforms could damage our long-term ability to compete and would damage the education of our children.'

He was replying to Harry Greenway, Conservative MP for Ealing North, who asserted that 'in Germany children are taught and tested for over 1,260 hours a year whereas British children are taught for 850 hours a year and would remain untested if some teacher unions and had their way'.

The Prime Minister added that 'as a former head teacher' Mr Greenway spoke with 'particular authority' - a form of acknowledgement much used by Mr Patten in the Labour-initiated debate on the 'urgent need for stability in the nation's schools'.

As well as another nod to Mr Greenway, who ended his teaching career as deputy head of a comprehensive, Mr Patten deferred to Patrick Thompson as 'an ex-headmaster', though the North Norfolk Tory pointed out he was a classroom teacher, and to Gerry Steinberg, Labour MP for the city of Durham, as 'the voice of the NUT on earth'.

Mr Steinberg, who actually is an ex-headmaster, intervened to ask the Secretary of State to spell 'sincerely'. Apparently he had got in wrong in a letter to a Cleveland school, but had clearly been doing his homework and spelt it out correctly, letter by letter. Ann Taylor, Labour's education spokeswoman, suggested Mr Patten extend parental ballots to one on whether their 14-year-olds should have to sit the tests.

Pressed by Tory backbenchers to say whether she supported a boycott of the tests, Mrs Taylor said: 'I certainly support the professional and the educational case that teachers make. The actions they take in pursuit of this are and must be, their decisions. I do not intend to tell teachers what to do.'

Declaring her vested interest as the mother of two primary school children, she said she the tests were high on administration and low on educational value. 'The Secretary of State is a very simple man. For him any test is good. Any criticism of any test has to be wrong.'

But Mr Patten called Mrs Taylor's attack 'ranting' and criticised her call for stability. 'Stability is code for returning to the failed policies of the 1960s and the 1970s in which high standards were subordinated above all else to the pursuit of equality.'

A former geography don with a daughter in a state school, Mr Patten said he relished the opportunity of the debate and appeared to do just that, striking a series of foppish poses as he rattled the Opposition with an unrepentant defence of testing.

'Talk of boycotts is an absurd over-reaction to tests that have been carefully prepared. . . I don't believe that those committed and professional teachers will now turn round to their pupils and say that a test that is required by law. . . and for which a pupil aged 14 has been preparing for three years should now be torn up and tossed in the waste paper bin.'

But Sir Malcolm Thornton, Conservative chairman of the education select committee, repeated his belief that tests should be abandoned or made voluntary for this year.

A Labour motion calling for the withdrawal of the compulsion on schools to carry out the Key Stage 3 tests in English and technology was rejected by 317 votes to 263. However in the Lords, where the Education Bill was in committee, the Government was defeated by 122 votes to 88 on a Labour amendment designed to ensure people with experience of special educational needs are appointed to the agency which will handle funds for opt-out schools.

Declarations of parental interest began at Question Time when Michael Connarty, Labour MP for Falkirk East, called for a childbirth charter to 'protect women from the scalpel'. He wondered if, like him, Mr Major had shared the joy of being present at the birth of his children, and also the deep concern of the Royal College of Midwives at the 'massive' increase in Caesarean sections - from 5.3 per cent to 13 per cent in England.

'Women are now threatened in one in eight cases with surgery in what should be a pleasant childbirth experience,' Mr Connarty said. The description 'pleasant' caused some laughter, but the issue engaged the Prime Minister. He said he had attended the birth of his daughter, Elizabeth, and son, James, but added: 'I must confess I was not aware of the growth in Caesarean section operations.' He promised to refer the matter to Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health.

Bosnia dominated Question Time. Legislation to make it easier for members of the Territorial Army to be called up was foreshadowed by Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence. He complained bureaucratic red tape got in the way when the Army wanted to send a reservist fluent in Serbo-Croat to Bosnia.

John Smith - dubbed 'bomber Smith' by one Tory backbencher - called for an ultimatum telling the Serbs 'that they will not be allowed to continue with their aggression unchecked and if they do so their lines of supply in Bosnia will be subject to air attacks'.

But Mr Major warned the Labour leader: 'The road to further action, particularly if that road leads to military action . . . is a road that is fraught with perils. Once one goes down it there is no turning back.'

(Photograph omitted)

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