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Smooth run for this year's guinea-pigs

Diane Hofkins reports as national tests begin again. Six hundred thousand guinea-pig pupils took their national tests for the second time this week, as the same cohort of children who underwent the time-consuming standard assessment tasks for six and seven-year-olds in 1991 settled down to four-and-a-half hours of paper-and-pencil tests.

There were few signs of disruption, although there was some anxiety, as the administration of the key stage 2 tests began on Monday and Tuesday, and two years of teacher union boycotts came to a close in most parts of the country.

David Bartlett, assessment co-ordinator in Birmingham, said it seemed "curious" that the tests were going so smoothly, given the action of the past two years and widespread complaints about funding. "I think people are tired of fighting about the issue," he said.

"I'm really pleased that everybody's doing them, frankly", said Rose Johnson, Brent's assessments inspector. "I think the schools have been exceptional in responding this year." They have been well-prepared, and she was finding no sense of panic early in the week.

There has been little comment on the test papers themselves, although some teachers and advisers have expressed concern about difficult language in a few science questions, which could cause problems for children with English as a second language, and about a big gap between the levels 1 and 2 "tasks" aimed at special needs children and the levels 3-5 tests in English. Some said the maths paper did not allow enough time.

In Kirklees, "people are doing them - I would say with mixed grace", said chief inspector Terry Piggott. But there was concern about the usefulness of the results, and about whether they would be available in time for secondary schools to use in planning their programmes for the new intakes. Results will be available in June or July.

Meanwhile, the Government has published a leaflet for parents which emphasises: "It is not the purpose of the tests to enable secondary schools to decide which children to give places to."

It says that in time it will be possible to compare how the same children did at seven and at 11.

But not this year. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority is developing methodology for "value-added" analysis, but has no plans to make comparisons between this year's 11-year-olds' results and their scores of four years ago, when the results were not considered reliable.

Peace was bought with a Pounds 30 million package of concessions, including external markers for key stage 2 and 3 tests.

However, in Wales, a continued boycott by the 4,000-strong National Association of Teachers in Wales (UCAC) was expected to hit at least 1, 200 primary and secondary schools. The industrial action, which UCAC claims is also being backed by members of other unions, is based on workload.

A group of parents in Exeter kept their children off school to avoid taking the key stage 2 tests this week, claiming they were too stressful. Sixteen children, out of 36 expected to take the tests, joined the boycott.

Jean Smith, the school's headteacher, said they would be marked down as unauthorised absences.

She said: "There is very little I can do. These children can only be marked on teacher assessment."

Parent Karen Gill, who led the protest said: "I am just a dissatisfied parent. I think the tests cause stress, are a waste of resources and teaching time and I can't see any benefits in taking them. We do seem to be fairly much on our own taking this stand."

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