Minister's grin turns to grimace

23rd January 2004 at 00:00
Puzzle fans have missed out if they have not tried the Stephen Twigg word-search.

The puzzle appears in the latest edition of the junior education minister's own publication, TWIGG magazine.

Residents in Twigg's Enfield Southgate constituency are invited to spot a range of words relating to the MP's life and interests for the star prize of tea on the House of Commons terrace with the man himself. Clues for the word-search include "Stephen's first school (6,4)" and "The local hospital where Stephen was born (5,4)".* When the minister took part in a debate about testing at Winchmore secondary in Enfield he placed plentiful copies of TWIGG magazine on a table in the school hall. But parents and teachers seemed more interested in the merchandise on the adjacent table: a range of baseball hats, stickers and balloons bearing the slogan "Boycott Sats now!".

This was one of the first signs that Mr Twigg was in for a tough night.

More than 40 local teachers and parents braved cold January rain for the debate, which was organised by Winchmore school's National Union of Teachers rep.

At the start of the event the minister had seemed confident, flashing his election-winning smile.

He even chuckled through sections of a speech by Jon Berry, convenor of the Anti-Sats alliance, who argued that the Government was "treating children like baked beans".

But when teacher after teacher stood up to tell their Sats horror stories, the smile began to slip.

And by the time the discussion had turned to under-10s phoning the Samaritans because of their test stress, the MP's expression was one of grim concern.

The evening was a sharp reminder that anxiety about the tests remains as high as ever, despite the NUT's failure to launch a boycott.

Catrina O'Hare, a teacher at Winchmore, said her seven-year-old daughter had loved school until last year when she feigned illness to avoid Sats.

"It is criminal," she said.

Martin Bates, deputy head of Knowle Park primary, described how teaching-to-the-test was rife and how the Sats demoralised pupils at his school who spoke English as a second language.

Even those who said they had come to the meeting with open minds were swayed. Parent Alex Nsimbi, who has a six-year-old daughter, said he had not really known what the meeting was going to be about. "I wasn't for the tests or against them," he told the minister. "But given what I've heard tonight I'd say I was pretty much an anti-Sats person now."

After the meeting Mr Twigg said he would look to see how he could make the planned changes to key stage 1 tests clearer. He would also investigate key stage 3 English exams following comments from Winchmore staff that they were "just embarrassing".

Although the audience's anger towards the tests was clear, there was almost a sense of pity for their local MP. "I think you're a lovely fella, Stephen," a grandmother in the front row said. "You're just in cloud-cuckoo-land on education."

* Word-search answers: Grange Park primary and Chase Farm

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