Editorial - Bruising tactics make winning campaign a loser

3rd April 2009 at 01:00
Calls to boycott KS2 testing run risk of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

There are times in human affairs when a perfectly reasonable case is ruined by an appalling lapse of judgment. In June 1942, the war wasn't going well. Tobruk had fallen, the Germans were planning shopping sprees in Cairo and Churchill faced a vote of no confidence. Up stepped Sir John Wardlaw-Milne MP, who, after articulating the fears of a desperate nation, proposed a saviour - the Duke of Gloucester. It was as if Gordon Brown, realising that his ballooning budget deficit didn't do anything for his figures, had turned to Gok Wan for advice and support rather than the G20.

Opponents of testing at key stage 2 must feel like the incredulous supporters of poor Sir John. Their arguments are rational and their timing is excellent - even the Government is exploring alternatives after last year's marking debacle. And then two of your key champions start acting like bruisers at a church fete.

The National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Head Teachers would, of course, not see their call for a boycott that way (pages 5, 26-27). They are impatient, frustrated and determined to get the tests scrapped. They do not see why their members, disproportionately concentrated in primary schools, should have to put up with them when they were ditched, to near universal jubilation, in secondaries. On the contrary, armed with legal advice and giving notice way in advance of any likely action, they are convinced their tactics are prudent and reasonable.

Unfortunately, they are neither. Their lawyers may argue that the unions have protection under the law, but others are equally certain that they and their members would be liable to prosecution. If the law is likely to be confusing, the etiquette promises to be horrendous. Headteachers could be put in the absurd position of manning the barricades while their less militant staff refuse to agitate. A legal and managerial quagmire looks inevitable, whatever the advice.

In the court of public opinion, would the unions' actions be seen as reasonable or generous? Telling the Government that it has several months to agree with you is not a definition of magnanimity most would recognise. And asking it to admit it got things wrong is a forlorn hope. The likely reaction of any administration ordered to capitulate, let alone repent, is pretty predictable. Arguments over testing soon evaporate as a complex question is reduced to a very simple one: who governs here?

At certain periods in history, questions like these need to be asked. Although Sir John Wardlaw-Milne ultimately fluffed his 15 minutes of fame, he chose his moment well and made his pitch as Rommel ran amok and Churchill's generals floundered. Now the country faces economic meltdown and some hard choices. As thousands of outraged citizens lose their homes and jobs, many will want to overhaul old systems, to adopt radical answers and to be galvanised by fresh slogans. "Boycott testing at key stage 2!" is unlikely to be prominent among them.

Gerard Kelly, Editor, E: gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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