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A `natural' Tory move towards confrontation

As the general election approaches, we appear to have come full circle. Following their victory in 1992, Conservative ministers decided to mend fences with the teachers. The national primary tests were radically amended and the parent-teacher boycott was called off. Now in the pre-election climate a decision appears to have been taken to confront the education community.

Presumably by announcing compulsory tests in the first two years of secondary school, Raymond Robertson, a more abrasive Education Minister than Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, his predecessor, thinks that there is political capital to be made. Whatever the educational reasons for wanting to speed up the assessment of 5-14 progress in secondary schools, political thoughts must have been uppermost in the Mr Robertson's mind. He chose the party conference to announce his intentions, and nothing of a controversial nature is undertaken at this stage in a Parliament without an eye to the political fallout.

The strategy is to rebuild the "natural" Conservative support which unexpectedly came together at the last election and has since been lost again. There is more to be gained by appealing to those who question school standards and doubt the mixed-ability approach to early secondary education than is to be lost by annoying a profession containing few Tory supporters.

It is a high-risk strategy. A re-formed parent-teacher alliance leading to a successful boycott of the tests would make the Government look impotent. The Government's vulnerability on education, an issue being pushed into prominence by all the parties, would be exposed, as it was in the 40,000-strong protest rally in February. Today's survey on behalf of the Educational Institute of Scotland (page one) underlines the level of popular backing for teachers and schools.

Yet Mr Robertson may have calculated shrewdly. To impose national tests he will need legislation. A Bill cannot come forward before the autumn. Even if it passes through all stages before the election, its acceptability in the classroom will not be tested until after the voters deliver their verdict. Any political benefits in demonstrating ministerial muscle will be countered only by noisy objections from the teacher unions and not by an actual boycott.

He may also reckon that parents are less likely to support secondary teacher militancy than they were to withdraw their children from the primary tests. There is greater unhappiness about pupil progress in S1 and S2 than in primary schools, and the notion of external tests is not alien to secondary schools. Nothing would please ministers more than to isolate teachers from their parent partners, especially if that was coupled with dissension among parent organisations.

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