The National Association of Head Teachers says in a statement: 'Previous secretaries of state have understood that they have neither the expertise nor the wisdom to dictate to teachers how they should teach.'
Other teachers' unions criticised the Government for failing to reduce the subject matter that primary schools have had to cover since the introduction of a nine-subject national curriculum.
Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said an overloaded curriculum was threatening teaching of the basics that the Government so favoured.
Ministers were 'resurrecting the bogey of the so-called progressive teaching methods of the 1960s - itself a myth since report after report showed that the majority of primary schools retained largely traditional methods. There is no substitute for serious dialogue with the representatives of teachers,' he said.
Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said a review of the whole curriculum was needed, not a five-year 'rolling programme of promises'.
The National Union of Teachers said Mr Patten's proposals were unrealistic; many primary schools were too small to avoid mixed-age classes.
Doug McAvoy, the union's general secretary, said most primary schools had little more than one teacher per class. 'Specialisation would require at least 1.5 teachers per class; that costs money and I doubt whether the Government would be willing to meet the cost.'
Ann Taylor, shadow Secretary of State for Education, attacked Mr Patten for constantly changing his mind. There was now a measure of agreement between parents, teachers and the Labour Party that the curriculum was overloaded and too prescriptive, she said.
The extent to which the proposals will change the system are unclear. Research for the four-year Leverhulme Primary Project at Exeter University's school of education, to be published in May, suggests that primary teachers spend one-third of their time on whole-class teaching. Researchers observed lessons by 60 teachers around the country.
Previous studies at Exeter suggest that most teachers already 'set' their pupils according to ability. However, work done by Professor Neville Bennett shows setting needs to be well-organised to be effective.