Editorial - Let's pretend the boycott never happened

21st May 2010 at 01:00
Campaigners may yet win the argument - but they will have to wait a while yet

Forget the question about how noisy a tree is if it falls in an empty forest. A more pertinent conundrum is this: if teachers hold a test boycott in schools across England but the nation fails to notice, did the action really take place?

The new Government could happily pretend last week's key stage 2 tests boycott never happened. Yes, it affected the work of thousands of teachers and tens of thousands of pupils. At almost any other time, the industrial action by heads' union the NAHT and teaching union the NUT would have been front-page news.

But it wasn't. By an accident of timetabling, the boycott started when England was still in a rare state of political limbo. There was no government to take the blame for letting all those rebel heads disrupt the sacred national tests.

The fact that the nation's attentions were fixed on Downing Street also denied the boycott the publicity its organisers had expected. It must have been galling for them that their week of industrial action in schools gained vastly less coverage than a British Airways strike that was blocked before it had even started.

Heads and teachers who took part may feel disappointed, too. Their stand was principled, driven by a desire for a better assessment system for pupils, free from the pressure to cram for narrow tests and juke the stats. But the rest did not follow (many, reasonably, because they thought the timing was daft).

The numbers who took a stand should not be dismissed: in a data-obsessed age, with governors, school improvement partners and Ofsted inspectors breathing down their necks, it was brave for any teacher to participate.

But the proportion of schools that joined the boycott - a quarter at the most - must still strike the organisers as disappointing, a drizzle after promises of a barbecue summer. The fact the ringleader of the NAHT is stepping down shortly will make it even easier for the Government to ignore the action.

So everyone can pretend the boycott was imaginary. And we should - for now.

Some teachers have complained that taking part in the action has, ironically, left them with extra marking work. But, crucially, few parents appear upset and many have been supportive of the boycotting schools. Thousands of families complained when Doctor Who was interrupted by a BBC ident, but, as yet, no angry hordes of mothers and fathers are picking up pitchforks because their 11-year-old missed out on writing an essay about a fictional pet. Let us hope families continue to support, or fail to notice, the action, and that Year 7 teachers are happy with the teacher assessments they receive from the boycotting schools.

Wait, quietly, until this cohort of Year 6s have moved to secondary, the KS2 results have been published and parents of four-year-olds have picked new primaries in the spring. If it still feels as if the boycott never happened, then the anti-Sats campaigners will have their best evidence yet that the tests are pointless and should be decoupled from league tables immediately.

Michael Shaw, Opinion editor, E: michael.shaw@tes.co.uk.

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