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Another test front

During the past week we have had a tantalising glimpse of the fabled spirit of national unity which those under 55 have read about but never before experienced. Neighbours who have previously done no more than exchange curt nods have linked arms in the street and sung along to Vera Lynn. The whole country, it seems, has been demob-happy.

Out on the national curriculum tests battlefield, however, staccato bursts of small-arms fire are being heard again. For though the big teacher union battalions have all signed a peace accord with the Government and moved back their heavy guns there is still stiff resistance to the tests in Wales and Nottinghamshire.

The re-opening of the three-year-old conflict must be a serious disappointment to the Education Secretary because she believes, with some justification, that both the Government and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority have done their best to appease the tests' teacher critics. The tests for seven and 14-year-olds have become shorter and more manageable. There has been an extensive pilot exercise to ensure that this month's tests for 11-year-olds do not make unreasonable demands on either pupil or teacher. And millions of pounds are being spent on providing supply teachers (at key stage 1) and external markers (KS 2 and 3) to ease the class teacher's workload.

None the less, Ministers must surely not be surprised by the latest turn of events. It has long been acknowledged that Welsh-medium teachers have an even heavier timetable than their English-speaking counterparts - only about 5 per cent of the Welsh primary teachers' time has been freed by the Dearing reforms - but there have been few serious attempts to address the problem. Equally, it was predictable that at least one authority would balk at the prospect of part-funding the testing of seven-year-olds in a year when budgets are being slashed back. The surprise is that Nottinghamshire, which was asked to find Pounds 145,000 for supply cover even though its aggregated schools budget has been reduced by Pounds 11.28 million, is the only authority to have adopted this stance. But the county has always opposed national curriculum testing and wants to invest the Pounds 145,000 in projects dearer to its heart - development work on teacher assessment and a follow-up to the impressive value-added analysis, Beyond League Tables, that it published last year.

Clearly Nottinghamshire feels it has moral and legal backing for its action. There have been no lamentations from parents, and many of the county's heads and teachers wanted the education committee to take such a stand. And there is no legal obligation to bid for the GEST grants which will pay for the key stage 1 supply cover. The statutory obligation to carry out the tests actually rests with the headteachers (although the LEA has a duty to see that the head fulfils that obligation). Some Nottinghamshire primary heads will therefore think long and hard about whether or not to hold the tests despite the lack of supply cover.

The DFE and Welsh Office are in uncharted legal waters in seeking their own response to the rebellion. But ultimately this is not an issue that has a legal solution. If the opponents of national curriculum testing are to be brought into the fold it will be as a result of the SCAA review, or more impressive arguments than the Government has deployed to date.

The case for key stage testing is not wholly convincing. One fundamental criticism is that a single set of tests cannot be used both for reporting purposes and to further a child's development. Moreover, research has cast serious doubt on the accuracy of KS 1 test results and there is also no doubt that teaching-to-the-test is a fact of life in many schools, that the tests tell teachers little that they do not know and that many parents still do not understand the grading system. Against that, many teachers, particularly at KS1, admit that the tests have encouraged them to plan their work more carefully and teach in a more focused manner. Some KS3 staff were enthusiastic about last year's tests too, and one Staffordshire teacher recently wrote to The TES to say how much his pupils had enjoyed tackling the maths paper.

Even so, no one should underestimate the difficulty of brokering a lasting peace over national curriculum tests, particularly if the Government is really intent on publishing key stage 2 tables next year. That will require skills of diplomacy way above level 10.

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