Student teachers will be given an unlimited number of chances to pass controversial skills tests, as Estelle Morris, the new Education Secretary, bowed to pressure from the training sector.
The policy change takes effect immediately and students who had already used up their chances can resit the tests.
Until now, students had four or five chances to pass the computer-based literacy and numeracy tests. Failure had meant being denied qualified teacher status and not being able to teach in state schools in the UK and the European Union.
Under the new rules, student teachers must still pass the tests before they can teach in state schools. A third test in computer skills is due in 2001-02.
Ms Morris said: "We mustn't compromise on standards. These literacy and numeracy tests will continue to ensure that teachers have the skills to carry out their professional role effectively in the classroom.
"However, we have listened to concerns expressed about the limit on the number of attempts and feel that ensuring greater flexibility is the right way forward - not least in the interests of trainees."
The partial u-turn came as the biggest teacher union warned that up to a quarter of England's trainees could be lost to the profession because of the stress caused by the tests. The National Union of Teachers and representatives of the teacher training institutions have called for them to be dropped.
Richard Palframan, the NUT's regional secretary for the North-west, estimated that up to a quarter of the region's trainees would fall by the wayside because of the tests. This was based on comments from students at local colleges and calls to his office, from both students and anxious parents.
"As a school governor, the prospect of losing a brilliant French teacher because she or he doesn't know the square root of 127 is barking mad. It's the politics of madness at a time of teacher shortage."
NUT general secretary Doug McAvoy had written to Ms Morris urging her to abandon the tests, and adopt the General Teaching Council's proposal of embedding them into the teacher training curriculum, which is currently under review (TES, May 25).
Some students have also threatened to take their cases to court (see case study, right), under equal opportunities and employment legislation.
They were planning to argue that students training in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland don't have to take the tests but can teach in England. England-based students who complete similar postgraduate or degree training courses but fail the tests cannot teach in state schools in the UK or European Union.
Colleges in Wales report some of their former students now working in England had been asked by headteachers to take the tests, illustrating the confusion surrounding them. P> Leader, 24 Friday magazine, 27 UP to a quarter of this year's trainee teachers in England could be lost from the profession because of the stress caused by computer-based skills tests, the biggest teacher union claims.
Meanwhile, legal challenges to the tests seem increasingly likely, on grounds of equal opportunities and human rights.
Students training in England who successfully complete their courses but fail the literacy and numeracy tests will be barred from teaching in state schools in the UK and European Union.
Yet their counterparts leaving colleges in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will face no such barriers to employment, and are not required to take the tests to teach in England.
A mature student, who has spent eight years working towards a teaching careerand has failed her numeracy test three times, has said she will take her case to the European court of human rights, if she fails her remaining two chances (see case study, right).
Richard Palframan, the National Union of Teachers' regional secretary for the north-west, estimates that up to a quarter of the region's student teachers will fall by the wayside as a result of the tests, based on comments from students at local colleges and calls to his office, from both students and anxious parents.
NUT general secretary Doug McAvoy has written to Estelle Morris, the new Education Secretary, urging her to abandon the numeracy tests, and adopt the General Teaching Council's proposal of embedding them into the teacher training curriculum.
Ms Morris told The TES: "All teachers need numeracy in a way they didn't 10 years ago. They need to be able to use comparative and performance data. Even if you have GCSEs, when you qualified as a teacher it is five years since you did any maths."
A Teacher Training Agency spokesman added: "No figures are being published so any conclusions on the overall pass or failure rate (for the tests) can't be substantiated."
The TTAsays more than 26,000 students have registered for, or taken the tests, so far.
Colleges in Wales report that some of their students who took up posts in English schools this year were asked by headteachers to take the tests, illustrating further the confusion surrounding them.
Students trained in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland do not have to sit the tests to get qualified teacher status and are entitled to teach anywhere in the UK or EU.
Julie Piacentini, head of secondary partnership education at the University of Wales Institute Cardiff, said: "Our students are very relieved about (not having to do the tests). They feel there's no need as they already have maths and English GCSE.
"But there is a concern that they may be disadvantaged in England because employers would expect it. One of our students, now in his induction year, was asked by his headteacher to take the tests."
See Friday magazine.