As the journalists trudged out of the Department for Children, Schools and Families, lugging a two-inch wad of briefing notes, Ed Balls quipped: "I hope there's enough there for you. There were complaints that this Bill didn't contain anything."
The Schools Secretary had just spent the last hour and a half going over his latest piece of legislation, the Children, Schools and Families Bill, Labour's 10th education bill in 12 years.
While witticisms may not be Mr Balls' strong point, his jibe was not lost. The proposed legislation, based heavily on the 21st Century Schools white paper, announced in July, was expected to include few surprises. The education establishment was ready to recite the Government's list of new measures.
But amid the promises and pledges, the Schools Secretary pulled one of his few remaining tricks from his sleeve. From 2010, he said, teacher assessment of pupils will be published alongside key stage 2 Sats results, and by 2011 there will be "light touch" moderation of the assessment.
It was a hint at least that the formal tests could be phased out should parents be satisfied that the data is rigorous enough.
The decision, Mr Balls added, was the result of ongoing talks with Mick Brookes, general secretary of teaching union the NAHT, which is holding a ballot, along with the NUT, on whether to boycott next year's tests.
Mr Balls has been under intense pressure to avoid a politically damaging boycott of Sats tests just before a general election.
At their annual conferences earlier this year, the NUT and NAHT voted in favour of holding a ballot on whether to boycott the national curriculum assessments. The results of indicative ballots of their members are expected next week.
Mr Balls' decision to include teacher assessment in primary-school league tables has been seen as a clear signal of intent to appease the unions, and a possible first step to the overall abolition of the formal tests. It follows recommendations set out by the Government's expert group last May, which called for ministers to consider investing in and improving teacher assessment to see whether it would be possible to "move away" from formal testing, as has been the case with key stage 1.
Speaking last week, Mr Balls said: "I'm absolutely not closing the door on long-term reform, but we would only move away from externally marked tests if we were 100 per cent confident we could provide for parents that objective assessment and validation."
The Schools Secretary added that he wanted to "work together" with the partnership on publishing teacher assessment.
"Mick Brookes has said to us that he believes, and his key members believe, that publishing teacher assessment alongside externally validated tests is a real step forward," Mr Balls said. "It is a proposal he put forward to us."
Mr Brookes said he welcomed the decision by the Government to recognise teacher assessment, but added that he was "astonished" by Mr Balls' intention to publish them in league tables, and that it could do little to avert a boycott.
"We want an end to league-table culture," he said. "It's a step in the right direction, but I'm astonished that he should think we want this. We won't rest until the league tables are gone."
Mr Brookes maintained that Mr Balls' announcement would not result in the boycott being called off.
The NUT welcomed the decision, but demanded to know the full details of the Government's plans. The union is not part of the social partnership, which gives other teachers' leaders a voice on policy affecting teachers' pay and working conditions. But it has been keen to sit at the table with Mr Balls on the Sats boycott in an attempt to come to an agreement.
Christine Blower, NUT general secretary, said: "That Ed Balls has repeated that testing and assessment are 'not set in stone' is welcome. The fact that he speaks warmly of teacher assessment is also welcome. However, his enthusiasm to tell us that he wants what 'works best for pupils and schools' is not borne out by his decision to both maintain the Sats next year and publish the results. We would want to see the detail of his proposals and be fully involved in the discussion on their implications."
Formal external assessment has been a mainstay of the Government since 1997. Only recently, particularly following the key stage 3 Sats debacle, has it begun to waver over national curriculum tests.
Conor Ryan, former education adviser to Tony Blair - a staunch supporter of externally assessed results - said it was "vital" that Sats should remain in their current form. Speaking to The TES, Mr Ryan said: "I think it perfectly reasonable to publish both sets of results. But it is vital for accountability and standards that primary pupils continue to have externally set and marked tests, with their results published."
Mr Ryan later wrote in his blog that Mr Balls was "shameful" in his attempt to suggest to unions that key stage 2 Sats could go, and it was merely an attempt to "curry favour" with the NUT and NAHT.
Mr Ryan added: "If the system becomes entirely self-policing, the dynamics would change considerably. There would be no real pressure to achieve in the basics, and this will particularly hurt boys' achievement in English."
The Conservatives have already announced plans to move key stage 2 tests so they are taken in the first year of secondary school.
Michael Gove, shadow schools secretary, believes the idea is to avoid duplication, as Year 7 teachers often make their new cohorts sit the same tests to gain a better understanding of their pupils' standards.
Under the Conservatives' plans, Sats at Year 6 would be scrapped and the tests would be taken in Year 7 and marked by Year 7 teachers, saving millions of pounds in external assessors in the process.
The move was seen by many as a way for the Tories to win support in their own way with the unions. Speaking about Mr Balls' proposals, Mr Gove said the Government should not pave the way for the abolition of testing altogether.
"We will examine carefully the plans to publish teacher assessment in addition to exam results, but this should not lead to a watering down of accountability," he said. "If Ed Balls' ultimate aim is get rid of external testing altogether, then parents would lose an important, impartial measure of how their child and their school is doing."
The Liberal Democrats claimed the Schools Secretary's whole approach to testing and the curriculum was "muddled".
The new Bill will see the introduction of a new primary curriculum. But the Liberal Democrats' education spokesman, David Laws, said announcing a new curriculum while also planning changes to Sats was "ludicrous".
"Testing has an impact on the wider curriculum, and the two areas need to be considered together before reforms are announced and considered by Parliament," he said. "It is ludicrous for Ed Balls to propose a new curriculum without giving full details of his plans for the national tests."
Mr Balls' announcement was certainly enough for the journalists, many interpreting it as the end of key stage 2 Sats, some predicting it by 2012. But whether it will be enough to stop the unions boycotting the tests is, for now, debatable.
Even more uncertain will be whether it will be enough to keep Ed Balls in power.
DOES THE BILL ADD UP?
The Children, Schools and Families Bill will include:
- A licence to practice for teachers;
- Primary curriculum reform;
- Compulsory sex education for 15-year-olds;
- School report cards;
- New powers for the Schools Secretary to intervene;
- Pupil and parent guarantees;
- Work-related courses and vocational experience made available.
The Children, Schools and Families Bill, based largely on the 21st-Century Schools white paper, sets out a number of guarantees both to parents and to schools.
At the heart of the bill is the pledge from the Government to provide 10 hours of one-to-one tuition to any child falling behind in English and maths following key stage 1 tests.
The same provision will be made for every Year 7 pupil who does not reach the requisite level 4 at key stage 2.
Where expectations are not met, parents are entitled to a means of redress that could end in court, which has led teachers to voice fears that the new bill could become a "whingers' charter".
Parents, however, will also be expected to sign a contract ensuring the behaviour and discipline of their child in school.
Finally, the bill puts into legislation the September Guarantee, which ensures a place in education or training for every 16-year-old.