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Smile, even though it's aching

Stephen Twigg's photogenic grin may slip when primary pupils' test results are released. Helen Ward met him.

STEPHEN Twigg has one of the most famous smiles in politics - a grin which flashed around the country when he defeated Michael Portillo in the 1997 general election.

But now he faces a term which would cause lesser smiles to slip.

Mr Twigg, 36, is the minister responsible for primary education. And next week, the Government will announce how many 11-year-olds reached the expected grade in English and maths.

A TES survey of more than 100,000 pupils indicates results have barely changed from last year.

Stagnating standards are not the only challenge, as the National Union of Teachers is threatening to boycott the tests.

He said: "I hope the NUT will step back from the brink and recognise we have listened to some of the concerns that they and others have raised.

What we are setting out in changes to key stage 1 and key stage 2 is a significant reform which places target-setting in the hands of teachers rather than being something imposed from the centre."

Mr Twigg sits beside a coffee table for the interview - rather than at the huge table dominating his seventh-floor office. But his emerging reputation is not just about his winning grin: his sympathetic ear has won him respect among heads.

In the past two terms, he has both antagonised and pleasantly surprised primary teachers.

He kicked off by confirming his support for the 2004 test targets and swiftly sending out a letter urging heads to "try harder" to hit them.

"Crude and unsubtle" was Professor Ted Wragg's verdict on it.

Headteachers were fuming, and by Easter both the National Association of Head Teachers and the National Union of Teachers had threatened to boycott the tests.

But then the primary strategy Excellence and Enjoyment was launched. It pledged to pilot new assessments to relieve test stress for seven-year-olds, dropped the national targets for 11-year-olds and began consultation on changing the performance tables.

It also acknowledged what Mr Twigg described as the "core issue" for teachers, that the focus on English and maths was squeezing out other subjects. The NAHT said the concessions were enough for it to withdraw its threat of a boycott.

David Hart, general secretary of the NAHT, said: "We have dropped the boycott of tests at the moment, but it depends entirely on how the key stage 1 pilot works out. We want to see whether the Government is genuine in allowing teacher assessment to dominate."

But an NUT spokeswoman said: "The Government has not announced that tests will be abandoned. Our members believe key stage 1, 2 and 3 tests are an unnecessary and unhelpful burden that do nothing to benefit children."

Mr Twigg said: "We had a set of primary headteacher conferences from January to March and for me they were the key factor in influencing my thinking.

"It was not the threat of a boycott, it was some persuasive arguments by professionals about how we could make changes in a way that didn't undermine our basic priority, which remains improved standards."

A pilot scheme for new KS1 assessments starting this year, he said, should be the norm in 2004.

Chris Davis, head of Queniborough primary, Leicestershire, and chair of the National Primary Heads' Association, was at the headteachers' conference in Coventry. He said: "For the heads it was great to have a minister clearly willing to listen. But there is a lot of cynicism out there. A lot of people say it is all very well coming and visiting, but the proof of the pudding has yet to be seen."

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