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'Do you back our boycott?'

Biggest teaching union quizzes teachers about testing regime. Warwick Mansell reports

Do national curriculum tests undermine your professional judgment? Have they raised standards? Are they stressful for pupils? Could teacher assessment do the job just as well?

These were some of the questions asked of nearly 250,000 teachers this week as the country's biggest staffroom union opened hostilities in what promises to be a year of action against the tests.

The National Union of Teachers has sent a questionnaire to its members asking whether they support a boycott of the tests for seven, 11 and 14-year-olds in English schools next year.

The survey, which must be returned by October 10, is designed to test opinion ahead of a formal ballot, which is expected towards the end of term. The union said action will involve not just the administration of the tests in May, but would take in all related activities, including practice exams and "teaching to the tests".

A seven-page pamphlet, setting out the NUT's case and including research criticising the tests, was sent with the questionnaire.

The move follows a survey of 3,000 members last year, which revealed that more than eight out of 10 teachers back a boycott.

John Bangs, the NUT's head of education, said he expected similar figures from the latest questionnaire. "People are still very angry about the testing regime - about how it narrows the curriculum, how parents are coaching children and how tests can undermine pupils' enthusiasm.

"The testing regime produces stress and paints a picture of schools which is not clear. It is such a narrow measure of success that it distorts teaching and learning."

The survey comes despite government moves in the summer to downgrade targets at key stage 2 and place more emphasis on teacher assessment at key stage 1.

The NUT argues that the Government has not gone far enough, urging it to follow Wales in reviewing all testing at 11 and 14. The principality scrapped KS1 tests two years ago.

The questionnaire also asks teachers whether their views on action would change if other unions balloted members. Both the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers are refusing to do so, arguing that the boycott could be ruled illegal. The NUT has indicated its willingness to go it alone.

Eamonn O'Kane, NASUWT general secretary, said that the union stood by its decision not to push for a boycott for legal reasons.

Leaving aside legal questions - there were fresh issues to consider in arguing against testing. It was wise, he said, to wait for the outcome of the Government's pilot which places more emphasis on teacher assessment at KS1 and allows schools to set their own KS2 targets.

He added that some NASUWT members had voiced concerns that replacing external tests with teacher assessment could add to teachers' workloads.

He said: "We could get into a situation where we still have league tables but rely entirely on teacher assessment (as the basis of the tables). In that case, we would be worse off than we are now."

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