Balls turns on charm but cannot seduce heads bent on boycott

8th May 2009 at 01:00
The Schools Secretary gave one of his best performances, but the NAHT stuck to its guns, writes David Marley

With 10 good laughs and three rounds of applause, Ed Balls could not have hoped for a better reception. Addressing the annual conference of the National Association of Head Teachers as it agitated for industrial action over Sats, the Schools Secretary should have been nervous.

If he was, he hid it well. And if he feared a headteacherly telling off over Sats, he need not have worried. Apart from some murmurs of disapproval and a few voices of dissent, the heads kept quiet. It's what they have come to expect in assembly halls.

Not usually an impressive public speaker, Mr Balls pulled off one of his strongest stage performances in Brighton. There were some well-received jokes - including one about his children's disappointment at not joining him on a day trip to the seaside - and some of his boldest criticisms yet about the problems with league tables.

Speaking without notes, as usual, Mr Balls said it was time to make "old style league tables a thing of the past". They are too narrow and fail to reflect schools' good work, he conceded.

He talked the language of co-operation. He promised fewer diktats from central government. And he tried buttering them up, telling heads that they were the best anywhere in the world.

He even won another round of applause when he agreed to miss his train home to Yorkshire to stay and answer questions.

But for all that he was prepared to bend over backwards, he was not about to do any limbo dancing. He stuck to the party line that boycotting tests was plain wrong.

As a politician who knows a thing or two about tribal loyalty, he must have known that direct pleas to abandon the boycott would have fallen on deaf ears.

And if he had been in any doubt when he sat down after more than an hour, the union's deputy president Mike Welsh soon dispelled it. Instead of a thank-you speech, Mr Welsh turned on Mr Balls in the most outspoken attack of the afternoon. "We are willing to work with you, but please, please do not test our resolve," he warned. With no chance to reply, Mr Balls left the building distinctly unimpressed.

Still, having dispatched the Secretary of State, the heads were ready to show their resolve and get stuck in to the main business of backing the boycott, right? Well, some were. Following Mr Balls swiftly out of the conference hall were a good third of the delegates, who had clearly decided that 5.15pm on Saturday was time for a cup of tea and a stroll along the sunny seafront.

Had they been won over? Doubtful. And given the long hours that heads have to work, it was a surprise that more were not prepared to stick around for another 45 minutes while the union considered sanctioning historic industrial action.

What followed was a large vote in favour of the boycott ballot. More than nine out of 10 of those left in the hall gave their support. Not the unanimous vote managed at the NUT last month, but a resounding result nevertheless. And all delivered via electronic voting pads, creating the slightly odd impression that the decision was one to "ask the audience". The heads even chanted in time with a digital countdown before the result was announced on large screens.

With Mr Balls gone, more heads found their voices. A big queue gathered to speak. One accused Mr Balls of bullying, another of "appalling moral blackmail" and yet another complained that the Government's support of Sats was close to committing emotional abuse against children.

Brian McNutt, a national council member from the Wirral, was the lone voice of opposition, accusing the union of "punching out wildly" for refusing to take up the government offer of dialogue.

David Tuck, a past president of the association, said in a voice heavy with sarcasm that he believed that Mr Balls wanted their help. "Please don't led Ed down," he implored colleagues.

Of course, the real battle begins now. The union knows it has a job on its hands to convince all members to back the ballot. And despite its letter to parents asking for backing, it is still not clear whether they will get them on board.

But there was evidence that heads had not lost their sense of humour. Les Turner, from Lancashire, explained that he was worried about the negative effect of Ofsted. The Sunderland supporter said it would be easier for him to write a love letter to Alan Shearer, the manager of Newscastle, than back the inspectorate.

"If Ofsted were an embarrassing medical condition, it would be piles," he said, "at the bottom of all our bleeding problems."


Amanda Hulme, Claypool Primary, Bolton

"Yes. We won't have a choice, really. The children are under so much pressure and we have to do something. I have a six-year-old daughter, and I want children to see themselves as children, not as numbers. I think the parents will understand. Polls by the NAHT show that 87 per cent are opposed to the current regime. But there's a lot we need to do before we get to the boycott stage."

Cheryl Gould, St Jude's CofE Primary, Wolverhampton

"I would boycott as a last resort. Significant numbers of heads in my area will support it if everything has been tried. I have a number of parents who are very concerned about Sats. Every year I'm asked if their children have to do them.

David Fox, Sandlings Primary, Woodbridge, Suffolk

"Yes. Teacher assessment gives heads enough evidence of a child's level. Sats provide nothing that I don't already know. They are bureaucratic. Millions are wasted administering them. I think parents will support us. They don't see the need. Sats just create unnecessary pressure for teachers and children."

Jean Spruce, Pictor Special School, Timperley, Cheshire

"Yes. This has been coming for a long time. There has to be a better way. Parents want to know about their child's progress and we have robust systems at our school to do that. But parents are worried about Sats and the pressure their children are under."

Debbie Sedgewick, Leighfield Primary, Rutland

"I haven't decided yet. I want to discuss it more with heads in my area. But everybody is in favour of getting rid of the Sats. A boycott would only be a last resort - and a lot could happen between now and next year's tests."

Harry Greer, Harmony Hill School, Lisburn, Northern Ireland

"I would certainly boycott them if I were in England. Luckily, I don't have to, and there's an injunction stopping newspapers in Northern Ireland printing the league tables. We still have end of key stage assessments, but they are solely to confirm teachers' judgments. Many of our pupils are kids from army families are over from England. And I've never had a parent from England say they valued the Sats - they're happier that their children don't spend a year just practising and learning to be tested."

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