Leading Article: Mr Patten fails the test

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JOHN PATTEN is close to sacrificing the consensus between parents and professionals that is essential to the success of the national curriculum and the Government's associated reforms. After nine months as Secretary of State for Education, he has yet to demonstrate the firmness and clarity of purpose his job demands. It is time to show some hard political courage. That may entail offending colleagues. It may even mean challenging Downing Street. But if he fails to act authoritatively, the present mix of administrative incompetence and weak leadership will turn dangerously volatile.

The catalyst is English testing for 14-year- olds, due to go 'live' in June. It is stirring up a vessel already bubbling with discontent. Development of the tests is the responsibility of the School Examinations and Assessment Council, chaired by Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach. English teachers are viewed as knee-jerk opponents of the Conservative reforms, so ministers complacently ignored their opposition. Mr Patten was told that the tests had been trialled enough - three times - and that he should press on.

The English teachers, however, have a case. The trials were disastrous. The contract to prepare the tests passed from one agency to another. The final set of questions, now in samizdat circulation, purports to examine the dramatic content of Shakespeare with trivial questions on pictures of productions. The anthology published for the tests two weeks ago contains high-quality literature, and is a legitimate foundation for assessment. But the questions are simplistic. Teachers learnt too late which Shakespeare texts must be studied. Levels of ability are inadequately covered. The council is in disarray. Mr Patten has failed to stop its drift.

Last autumn the headmistresses of independent girls' schools warned Baroness Blatch, Mr Patten's right-hand minister, that the English tests were too poor for them to use. Lady Blatch, in an ill-judged display of pique, fulminated irrelevantly back. Mr Patten supported her, enraging the independent heads. The new president of the Headmasters' Conference declared last week that he will be using his post to protest against the Government's unwillingness to listen to middle-of-the-road teachers. Between them, Lady Blatch and Mr Patten have achieved something previously considered almost impossible: they have alienated their traditionally staunchest supporters in the profession.

English teachers do not, en masse, oppose testing outright. But they have been provoked into intense hostility. They are winning the support of headteachers who fear having a large body of disaffected colleagues growling about the staff room. The National Union of Teachers is balloting on a boycott. The most moderate mass union, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, yesterday signalled its willingness to ballot if Mr Patten remains intransigent. Boycotts are a bad idea. They end up confusing parents, and pupils. But this bandwagon is not driven by militants; it is driven rather by a general sense that the Government's education policy lacks direction. Uncertainty about the future for opting out is the most glaring example.

In no circumstances should the Government surrender to those professionals who want to undermine the whole testing regime. But shabby, ill-conceived tests only discredit the vital purpose of introducing proper assessment. Mr Patten should agree to regard this year's English tests as a national pilot, while giving notice that next year's results, administered by the proposed new curriculum and assessment authority, will be published. He should be willing to lose this battle, in order to win the war.