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Education secretary Charles Clarke possesses the most precious of political abilities. He can judge, to the last ce...
Education secretary Charles Clarke possesses the most precious of political abilities. He can judge, to the last centimetre, what is the minimum he needs to do in order to defuse a crisis. He can then present the resulting compromise as a great step forward, implying he has slain a dragon created by someone else - usually council education departments or trade unions.

He seems to have got away with it in the schools funding crisis, and he has pulled off the same effortless trick over testing in primary schools.

When schools were faced with huge budget cuts, Mr Clarke offered schools a way out without giving them any more money - if they were prepared to mortgage their future. Then he said their future would be safe after all - he would take direct control over their funding, rather than leaving it to councils. Of course, the crisis was caused in the first place by the government flexing its centralist muscle and had little or nothing to do with councils.

His performance over testing was a classic. We are testing the next generation to destruction. Primary schools, as well as secondary schools, know their status in the community, and sometimes even their survival, depends on doing well in tests and league tables. A few weeks ago, a primary school head teacher admitted doctoring his children's tests, and his career came to a tearful end. He will not be the last. It is not good for teachers to be under that sort of stress, which they are bound to transmit to those they teach. Teachers have become sick to death of tests, and the National Union of Teachers has vowed it is going to boycott them.

Mr Clarke's political problem was that a boycott would be popular, not just among teachers but among parents too. It might even give a new lease of life to the NUT, an organisation he has loathed for many years, and for whose general secretary, Doug McAvoy, he has ill-disguised contempt.

So he gave away the minimum. Primary schools can set their own targets for tests for pupils at 11, but they must sti ll have targets. Tests for children at seven will be less formal. The national target for 11 year olds is to be abolished - there was not a snowball's chance in hell of hitting it.

It was enough, just, to defuse the anger of the National Association of Head Teachers and the NASUWT. The NUT was not mollified, and Mr Clarke knew it would not be. It will carry on with its planned boycott, but it will do so alone.

This furthers the project of isolating the NUT, which Mr Clarke began when he pointedly refused to go to its conference over the Easter holidays - barracking the incumbent education secretary at the NUT's annual conference has become an unmissable ritual for many teachers. Mr Clarke then told the conferences of its rivals how much nicer they were than that nasty lot at the NUT.

Once again, with one bound, not only was Mr Clarke free but his enemies were locked up instead. You have to admire the political skill of the man.

Francis Beckett

Education correspondent, New Statesman

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