In a startling reversal of previous policy the Government is to publish primary-school test results.
In an apparent concession to the Conservative right wing, Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, this week announced that the results of tests taken by 11-year-olds this summer will be published, school by school, in January 1997.
The timing will not allow selective secondary schools to use them as new-style 11-plus results.
Only last month Mrs Shephard promised that primary scores would not be published until the tests had "bedded down". She had been responding to the news that more than half the 11-year-olds in England and Wales failed to reach the expected standard in English and maths.
But this week, after a vigorous campaign in Tory-supporting newspapers, she took the opportunity provided by the launch of chief inspector Chris Woodhead's annual report to announce a change of mind. "We have to make sure that schools are fully accountable and that the results are transparent," she said.
Critics say that the tables will be unreliable because primary schools are relatively small institutions and the success or failure of just a few pupils could cause results to fluctuate wildly from year to year.
Chris Woodhead's report has fanned the flames of dissatisfaction by saying that standards of achievement are inadequate in half of all primary and two-fifths of secondary schools, the result, he said, of poor teaching.
Some secondary schools obtain results which are twice as good as some others in similar social circumstances, and six times better than those gained by the worst schools in disadvantaged areas.
The report found "mediocre and poor standards of literacy" and disappointingly low standards of maths, particularly at key stage 2 (8 to 11-year-olds) where "at a critical stage in learning to read or calculate, too many pupils mark time". "Phonic" methods were not used in a systematic way and not enough mental arithmetic was done.
The report made an issue of low standards at KS2 and KS3. Progress slowed at KS2 and this was "strongly associated with a fall in the quality of teaching". KS3 suffered from poor teaching and poor liaison between primary and secondary schools.
Mr Woodhead's last annual report caused a furore by asserting that nearly one in three lessons for older primary pupils is poor. This year's report fights shy of such bluntness though OFSTED has said that 20 per cent of lessons appeared to be poor across the key stages.
"There does appear to be less disparity than we thought," said a spokesman.
The chief inspector did appear conscious this year of a need to balance criticism with praise and contained a list of 203 very good schools. This included 32 secondaries described as "outstanding" on the basis of exam results and other factors. Teaching standards in most schools, he said, were satisfactory or better and he accepted that resources can present a major problem. One in seven primary schools and one in 12 secondaries required "significant improvements" in books and resources.
Similarly, one in seven primaries and one in five secondaries endured poor buildings, cramped classrooms or inadequate playgrounds. "Teachers who lack proper resources or who work in poor buildings experience problems which at best frustrate and at worst defeat their best efforts to do a decent job, " said the chief inspector.
He said he held by last year's assertion that "overall resources are adequate" but promised to investigate why some schools were suffering. He insisted some teachers performed well despite poor working conditions.
The report said that excellent teachers outnumber poor teachers two to one. But Mr Woodhead repeated his view, first outlined late last year, that there are nearly 15,000 inadequate staff who need to be removed from the profession: "A small minority of teachers is consistently weak. Such teachers damage the education of individual children and undermine the work of their colleagues.
"There appears to be an agreement in principle that it is in nobody's interest for such teachers to remain in the profession. That agreement must now be translated into management action."
David Blunkett, Labour's education and employment spokesman, was scornful of Mrs Shephard's test U-turn. "This is a woman who is under pressure from all sides. She is prepared to consider anything if the pressure is right." He described the report as a "serious indictment of the Government's failure to raise primary standards".
Don Foster, education spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: "After 16 years of Tory underfunding and constantly changing demands, the OFSTED findings come as no surprise. The Government's response is to cut, carp and criticise. Pupils and teachers have been failed by this Government's persistent refusal to give education the priority it deserves."
Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said it is inconsistent of Mrs Shephard to promise league tables before the 1995 test results have been formally evaluated. "Parents do have a right to information about the quality of education their children receive. But snapshot inspections and crude league tables do not provide this."
The Secondary Heads Association warned against subsidising weak primary schools at the expense of secondary education. "It must be recognised that secondary schools face the task of helping these pupils to catch up," said general secretary John Sutton. "So transferring resources from secondary to primary will simply add to the disadvantage of that generation of pupils. "
Peter Smith, leader of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "Primary schools have struggled to cope under a welter of Government-imposed change and modification. It is not surprising that some teachers have struggled."
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "It cannot be argued that the tests will have bedded down until 1997 at the earliest."
Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, accused Mrs Shephard of attempting to distract attention from the poor results contained in the OFSTED report.
"League tables are an expensive bureaucratic exercise which mostly confirms the obvious," he said. "Teachers have enough armchair critics. As the chief inspector has candidly confessed some of these people, including himself were responsible for forcing teachers to adopt inappropriate methods in the first place."