Unions split on changes to testing policy: Patten concessions draw confused response from parents and profession

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JOHN PATTEN'S changes to national testing address the problems of teachers, not children, according to parents' and teachers' representatives.

They struggled yesterday to understand the concessions, as one union leader claimed a big policy shift and another said that the changes were irrelevant.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, spoke of victory in his union's fight for a cut in teachers' workloads. 'Seventy per cent of the statutory national curriculum has been suspended overnight. Much of it is likely to be permanently removed. Teachers should not underestimate the massive shift in government policy.'

But Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said the proposals did not answer teachers' criticisms that the tests were educationally bad. Previous promises to slim down the tests had led to more simple pencil-and-paper tests, which teachers also disliked.

Even Mr de Gruchy acknowledged that Mr Patten had probably not solved children's problems. 'We may still have objections to the educational nature of the tests,' he said.

So how far has Mr Patten moved? Changes to government plans for a national curriculum and testing look fundamental. Under existing arrangements teachers have to assess children in nine subjects in primary schools and 10 in secondary.

With the system fully up and running, 7 and 11-year-olds would have taken formal tests in English, maths, science and technology, and history and geography might have been added for 11-year-olds. At 14, pupils would have taken formal tests in all but music, art and physical education. That programme was slimmer than the Government's original intentions, which would have meant testing all subjects, except art, music and PE, at every stage.

Now Mr Patten has cut down national tests at 7 and 14 next year to the core subjects of English, maths and science. He will decide whether to include technology at 14 after this year's tests. Tests in history and geography at 14, due next year, will also be postponed pending the review of the curriculum being carried out by Sir Ron Dearing - suggesting they may be abandoned altogether.

Continuous assessment of 7-year-olds in class will be compulsory only in English, maths and science. Next year's tests for 11-year-olds will be a pilot, not mandatory as originally planned, and secondary school tests may be marked externally to save teachers' time.

The basic findings of Sir Ron's review, which only began three weeks ago, are already plain. The testing regime will be like the one Margaret Thatcher demanded six years ago before she was overruled by Kenneth Baker, the Secretary of State for Education. Some teachers are worried by the idea of simpler tests. Teachers want simpler bureaucracy, not less sophisticated tests. Parents, too, are anxious about testing.

Frances Place, a parent at Sefton Park Bristol, where almost all parents have persuaded governors to allow them to withdraw 7-year-olds from tests, said: 'It addresses the problems of teachers, but our children are still supposed to sit stressful, inappropriate tests.'

Parents are interested in the Scottish system, where tests are carried out by teachers when they believe children are ready. No league tables are published. But Margaret Tulloch, of the Campaign for State Education, a parents' pressure group, said that one drawback of this system was that the tests were voluntary: only statutory tests would give all parents the information to which they were entitled.

League tables of test results are also unpopular with parents. Seventy per cent said they were misleading in an NOP poll for the Independent published on Monday. Alan Greenwood, of Getting Results Into Perspective, a Bradford group of head teachers, parents and governors, said Mr Patten had done nothing to alleviate these concerns.