Tories back down on school league tables: While the Secretary of State for Education is off sick, his stand-in is making changes. Anthony Bevins reports

JOHN PATTEN, the Secretary of State for Education who has been seriously ill for some weeks, suffered another blow yesterday when it was confirmed that his decision to publish league tables for school tests at 7 and 14 was to be countermanded by Baroness Blatch, his stand-in deputy.

The news was delivered by David Hunt, Secretary of State for Employment, who revealed that Sir Ron Dearing, chairman-designate of the new School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, would say in a report today that Mr Patten's proposals for league table should be re-examined. Asked about the league tables, Mr Hunt told BBC Radio 4's The World this Weekend: 'We'll announce our decisions once we've looked carefully at Sir Ron Dearing's report. We asked Sir Ron to make this investigation, and there are further inquiries to be made.'

However, as Sir Malcolm Thornton, Conservative chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Education, pointed out, Sir Ron had been asked to make an interim report on the national curriculum and testing - not league tables.

'I would very much welcome the review,' Sir Malcolm said. 'Whilst he was not specifically given, within the remit of this interim review, the job of looking at league tables, I feel the message will come over very strongly, and if the Government are listening - and they say they are very much intending to listen to the comments that have been made to Sir Ron - then it wouldn't surprise me at all that they respond in this way.'

Before he went sick, Mr Patten had insisted that publication of the league tables would go ahead in spite of teachers' fierce resistance.

Mr Patten's woes were heightened by criticism from Sir Malcolm yesterday of deficiencies in the management of change - and praise for Baroness Blatch. It has been widely noted at Westminster and in Whitehall that the Minister of State, who is much closer to No 10 than her Secretary of State, has delivered a near-faultless performance since she filled Mr Patten's shoes.

Sir Malcolm said that when Lady Blatch had recently given evidence to his select commitee, she had taken on board the need for league tables to be geared to the value added by schools to their pupils' education; taking account of catchment areas and student ability.

Sir Ron's report is expected to endorse that, but its main burden will be to urge a slimdown of the national curriculum and school tests, and a slowdown in the pace of change.

The report was said yesterday to contain options for consultation before final recommendations were made in December.

Those options included: reducing the 10 national curriculum subjects to a core of clearly defined knowledge and skills; limiting the national curriculum to no more than three- quarters of lesson time, to allow scope for other activities and ease pressure on timetables; specifying fewer compulsory subjects at GCSE, with a broader range of choices; streamlining tests at the ages of 7, 11 and 14, and concentrating on basic skills; and the introduction of external marking of tests for 14-year-olds, to reduce the workload of class teachers.

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