Should teachers back a Sats boycott?

NAHT and NUT members have until April 16 to vote on whether to snub this year's national tests for 11-year-olds. As ballot papers are sent across the country, a primary head and a union chief explain which way they believe their colleagues should turn
19th March 2010, 12:00am
Huw Thomas & Mick Brookes


Should teachers back a Sats boycott?

Huw Thomas, Head of Emmaus Catholic and CofE Primary School, Sheffield argues: "No, we have built children up for these tests and can't now let them down"

In 1992 I was lifted by the dungarees and banned from the local shopping centre. Some friends and I had been petitioning against a new government initiative when news came through that the Department of Education was at the centre, holding a roadshow. We decided to take our petition to the department and sought out the smartly dressed people on the display stand.

As we handed over the petition security guards surrounded us. "Don't speak to this man" one of them said, pointing to me. "He is a political agitator." Back then the dungarees gave this away, but I made the point that we were there as citizens, bringing the views of other citizens, and just wanted to. I was interrupted by one extra large guard, who pointed to two underlings and said: "Him - out!"

Shouting various facts about the social implications of indoor shopping centres, I was ejected and banned for life. My one ban, received campaigning against the Sats.

My hatred of these tests has nothing to do with workload and professional conditions. It has everything to do with what I saw coming back in 1992 - namely the way they have warped English primary education.

So it is with a real sadness that I shall open the ballot paper from my union next week, asking whether, at last, I want to join my comrades in boycotting these tests, and respond with a "No".

I would love to disrupt these tawdry little tests and allay the rot they set in our schools. Deep down I am up for a boycott - but not this one. Instead, I would advocate a massive "No" vote and will campaign accordingly.

What we all have to weigh up in this ballot is not just what we believe. It is how we translate those beliefs into action. It is my belief that to act now in a way that removes these tests from pupils is bad child psychology. The unions have botched this one and the kids shouldn't bear the brunt.

When we first petitioned back in the Nineties we often received negative responses from the public. But in recent years when campaigning against Sats a strange thing happens. Instead of the usual huge detour the man and woman in the street will usually take to avoid an activist - many people will happily throw themselves into the road to avoid being handed an ^A5 piece of paper - they detour towards us to sign up.

Often such guided signatories have a child in tow and, pointing to them, say "she had to do them" or "she's got them coming up", telling stories of the anxiety children face and lamenting the way education has been spoiled for this year group.

Last September I hoped to capitalise on this public mood. I waited patiently for my union. It didn't show up. We started to prepare for the tests, still wondering whether the union was going to get off its backside. No sign. We began arriving at school with children coming early for additional tuition, seeing teachers work damn hard in lessons and pupils doing lunchtime sessions and working till 5pm.

This ballot will close on April 16, three weeks before Sats, followed by the count and announcement of action. By then, many children will have built themselves into a state of readiness and have the right to the sort of closure they get if they confront the tests that have dogged them this year. We have built these children up, and can't now let them down.

I maintain that Sats have warped our schools. By overemphasising one performance of one set of skills you create a warped version of those skills.

Judge education by the warped and it will warp, particularly in challenging circumstances where real change and improvement require long-term development but the judgments are made based on short-term fixes.

However, the chance to say all this and be heard will not be won if we pursue this botched boycott. Leaving it so late, confusing children and damaging them will both alienate those petition-grabbers I know are out there, and convince them we are a hapless couple of unions. There is a good case to be made, that loyalty to the union requires us to save it from this senseless balls up and lodge a constructive "No" vote.

In doing so we need to be very clear we would happily wreck the tests, but we won't do this if it means wrecking the hard work of this Year 6 cohort.

We need to be clear we agree with the mass of people who believe these tests have warped primary education. Our "No" should be positive. And if anyone wants to boycott next year's tests then I'll don the dungarees and meet you at the shopping centre of your choice.

Mick Brookes General secretary of heads' union the NAHT says, "Yes. A vote in favour will boost morale and send a message to the next government"

One little comment from Ed Balls earlier this month made it abundantly clear that he is prepared to hang on to an unreformed view of assessment at the end of the primary phase.

Speaking at the Association of School and College Leaders' annual conference, the Schools Secretary said: "It would be a backward step to remove the tests at key stage 2."

This was greeted with silence from the delegates.

It is important to stress that neither the NAHT nor the NUT want to ballot for a boycott, but we have a commitment to our members. We have to fulfil the instruction from our joint national conferences to negotiate for significant change.

We are further mandated to ballot for action to stop the Sats in 2010 if insufficient progress has been made. While we have been told that these tests are "not set in stone", there is still no end in sight to this flawed mechanism.

We have failed to agree change for 2010 that would:

- protect colleagues in the most challenging schools from being humiliated and demeaned by the ritual publication of raw test scores;

- abolish the bureaucratic burden of administration and re-marking; and

- remove the opportunity for inspectors to pre-judge schools on the basis of test results.

The above underpins all that is wrong with the whole system of high stakes testing and punitive accountability. It goes without saying that we also want to ensure that Year 5 and 6 children have the best possible time at school, uncluttered by the need to monotonously rehearse practice tests.

The NAHT and NUT have consistently stated that we are not against testing per se, but we are against this "high stakes" regime that skews the curriculum and has the effects listed above. We need to develop a system that is better than the current system. Sats on their own are not an accurate enough indicator of pupil progress and neither is assessment on a consistent basis across all schools at the moment.

However, if testing is used to underpin not undermine teacher assessment, we will get to a better system. If those assessments are then subject to light touch moderation, we will have a system that is more accurate, has greater validity and can be used with confidence to inform parents and Year 7 teachers.

This should not lead to greater workload for our colleagues. We believe this is achievable, particularly as teachers would not be required to mark up to ten hours of Sats in the run-up to a test event.

We do realise that this ballot is highly controversial and we are disappointed to have got to this place. We have overwhelmingly won the case for change, and there are very few outside the Department for Children, Schools and Families that do not agree with our stance.

It is worth noting that we have had to delay the official ballot until now in order to give members maximum legal protection.

We have also been asked whether the tests can be completed and the results not returned. This is quite understandable as many children will already have been drilled for the exams, but it would put colleagues in jeopardy if they completed the tests and were then asked to return them outside the umbrella of legal protection. There would, of course, be no objection to using a past test, provided arrangements were made to eliminate additional workload in so doing.

The key thing is that we act together; the executive members of both the NAHT and NUT have done all they can to effect change - it is now down to you. I recognise the dilemma in which you are placed. On the one hand is the desire to support this movement for change. On the other hand is the sense of anxiety about deliberately disregarding the instruction to administer the tests. However, this is a truly democratic process; it is now your turn to have your say.

Interest in your reaction is not confined to these shores. Colleagues as far away as New Zealand are watching what happens here in England. A clear message coming from the profession in England will encourage colleagues in far-off places to join with us in rescuing education from the politicians and bureaucrats.

We need to remind ourselves that it is only children in Year 6 in England that are subjected to this ritual, and there is no evidence to suggest that these tests do anything to "raise standards". Why it is that a Labour government should perpetuate a system that humiliates children and their schools in those very communities in which so much has been invested is one of the deep mysteries of the universe.

We are at an important moment in time. A massive "YES" vote in the ballot will boost morale and send a message to the next government, of any hue, that the profession insists on being heard.

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