Leading Article: The message is: think again

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The Independent Online
THE Government has failed to persuade parents that its approach to school tests is in their children's best interests. That is the unequivocal message of this newspaper's poll of parental attitudes. The teachers' unions have been winning the propaganda war.

A majority of parents supported the teachers' decision to boycott the tests. An even larger majority believed this year's tests should be abandoned. Almost as many favoured tests only in the three core subjects as the number who wanted them in all national curriculum subjects. A large majority favoured dropping any testing of seven-year-olds. There was virtually no support for assessment solely by tests. And the largest majority believed that to publish overall results of tests for each school as a league table would be misleading.

None of these findings suggests that parents are opposed to the fundamentals of the Government's reforms: the introduction of a national curriculum and of uniform assessment to establish whether it is being successfully taught and learnt. But they do believe that children are too young to be tested at seven, and they thoroughly disapprove of the cack-handed manner in which the tests have been introduced. It is a considerable blow to the Secretary of State for Education, John Patten, that they support the teachers' boycott and believe this year's tests should be abandoned.

Kenneth Clarke, Mr Patten's predecessor, knew none of this yesterday when, in a radio interview, he expressed confidence in public support for the Government's educational reforms and attributed any parental anxieties to agitation by teachers at their children's schools. His remarks confirmed only how out of touch this Government has become with what people really think.

It was all the more astonishing that Mr Clarke could sound so relatively complacent a few days after the Conservatives' drubbing in local elections and the Newbury by-election. Canvassers in both found the school-tests issue high among voters' anxieties. Nobody is suggesting, as Mr Clarke disingenuously implied yesterday, that the Government should abandon its educational reforms. But they want it to admit its errors and think again about how the reforms are implemented. To a large extent it has already bowed to that demand by instituting a review. Our poll's findings will increase pressure for a radical overhaul.

There is a nice irony in all this. One of the undoubted successes of government policy has Ebeen to increase the involvement of parents in their children's THER write errorschools. It has, inter alia, raised the proportion of parent governors and increased parents' rights to information. No doubt ministers thought that better- informed and more involved parents would see all the more clearly just how sensible and constructive the Government's policies have been.

The effect has been very different. Whatever parents may originally have thought of the reforms, they have found the manner of their implementation gravely wanting; and they have taken the teachers' complaints seriously. It is time for the Government to admit that mistakes have been made, and to exercise sensitivity and imagination in putting them right.