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Off the boycott hook

It is much easier to get into industrial action than to get out of it. That was the fear expressed by wiser heads on both sides as the teacher union tests boycott began nearly two years ago. And so it has proved.

Last week's news that a ballot of National Union of Teachers members had come out resoundingly against carrying on with the boycott was welcome, but overdue. The NUT's leaders, like the bedrock of its membership, knew in their hearts that the action had gone on too long, but they needed help to get off the hook. This was duly offered by Gillian Shephard, an Education Secretary who understands when it is better to offer a face-saving review than to insist on surrender.

With any luck, the NUT decision marks the end of a particularly long, messy and unhappy chapter in the testing story, a saga that brought to a head the war between Government and teachers on the national curriculum battleground. It was a war which need never have happened, had it not been for the hubris of two Education Secretaries: Kenneth Baker, who deserves praise for introducing a national curriculum and blame for overloading it against all professional advice; and John Patten, who staked and lost his own career by refusing to compromise when it could have made all the difference.

The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers had a good war of course, having led the way on the test boycott, won a triumphant court victory on the workload issue, and spearheaded the wide teacher unrest which led directly to Sir Ron Dearing's curriculum review.

By the time Sir Ron's interim report had been rushed out in the summer, it was clear that the Government had been forced to concede the first phase of the war to the unions. Parents, governors, heads and independent schools had all united behind the teachers. Lady Blatch, standing in for a sick John Patten, accepted Sir Ron's proposals for wholesale cuts, and announced that there would be no league tables at seven and l4. After the final Dearing report a year ago, the other classroom unions were ready to end the boycott but the heads feared staffroom conflict so long as the NUT disagreed.

Since then, the attrition and uncertainties have continued. The tests were carried out in some schools last year, and some results were reported - enough, anyway, for the results to be published this week. Mr Patten has been replaced by Mrs Shephard, new measures have been brought in to reduce workload through external markers and supply cover, heads have been told where their duty lies, and the evidence now is that most parents expect accountability through test results.

Mrs Shephard, meanwhile, has not budged from the Government policy that testing should continue at 7, ll and l4, and David Blunkett for the Labour party is just as insistent about measuring standards.

It looks as if some NUT members, bitterly opposed to their leadership, will still refuse to cooperate on tests, but that they will finally be carried out in most schools this year. Last year's results are too incomplete for firm conclusions. Next time round, we should have stronger evidence and a baseline on which to chart future improvements, or fluctuations, in basic standards.

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