Leading Article: Voluntary tests, Mr Patten

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THE Secretary of State for Education has taken half a step forward by limiting next year's national curriculum tests to the core subjects of English, maths and science. But John Patten's move is nowhere near enough to win back teachers' support. Nor will it improve the low and worsening esteem in which parents hold the Government's present education policy - as shown by our opinion poll published two days ago. Mr Patten's statement in the Commons yesterday made no attempt to regain the initiative over this year's tests. Indeed, Downing Street's flat denial of reports of a move towards compromise this year merely underlined the inflexibility that parents are detecting in the Government's attitude.

There is a way for Mr Patten to meet his own needs, soothe the teachers and start to win back parental support. The snag is that it would take considerable political courage. Tomorrow the National Union of Teachers will announce the results of its boycott ballot. Overwhelming support is a foregone conclusion. At that point the three largest teachers' unions, representing almost all the 400,000 teachers in England and Wales, will have joined the action. In that context, it is futile and absurd for Mr Patten to keep repeating that this year's tests must be carried out.

He wants the tests to be held this summer so that he and Sir Ron Dearing can obtain evidence for their review of the national curriculum. The best way of achieving that aim now is to make the tests voluntary, so that the minority of teachers who want to conduct the tests feel free to do so. It would be too much to expect Mr Patten to do that on its own, because he would be pilloried for climbing down. He can overcome political embarrassment by converting this year's tests into a voluntary pilot, on condition that the teachers' unions lift their boycott. The argument that he cannot make the tests voluntary because there is a statutory requirement is unconvincing.

For the first time in months, Mr Patten would place the ball in the unions' court. The teachers might agree to lift their boycott, in which case Mr Patten would make considerable gains at little cost - while also freeing himself to negotiate with the unions directly. Even if they did not (the most likely reaction), he would at least strengthen his own position vis-a-vis parents and voters.

If the Government fails to take this course, it runs a serious risk of seeing parental disaffection deepen in the coming months. Nothing could be more dangerous for a policy that depends absolutely on parents' commitment. Mr Patten and his advisers plainly hope that the initial report from Sir Ron's review, due in July, will enable them to start recovering ground. By then it will be too late.

Throughout this dispute, the Government has failed to respond effectively in time to stop the fire from spreading. Yesterday's statement shows that Mr Patten is ready to make big changes to testing in future, including more teacher assessment and less government intervention. So far as the present crisis is concerned, however, it will have no more effect than flinging a pocket handkerchief over a conflagration.