Editorial - The sound of silence falls on the Sats battlefield. But will this shaky ceasefire hold?

22nd July 2011 at 01:00

What's that you can't hear in the playground? Yes, that's right, it's the sound of hundreds of kids not running amok. It's the sound of an empty school. It's the sound of six weeks' peace. Whether it features plans for the garden or plans for a Far Eastern backpacking holiday that will make your office-worker friends green with envy, enjoy the well-deserved break.

Peace has also apparently broken out in the key stage 2 Sats dispute (page 6). An awkward, uncomfortable, nobody-making-eye-contact kind of peace, but peace nonetheless. Think the educational equivalent of the lull after Northern Ireland's Good Friday Agreement - there's been an unmistakable change in atmosphere, all parties are talking, the Armalites are safely stored underground, but nobody can quite work out who has given in. No one's sure if there's an outright winner. In this way, the current situation on Sats is a classic ceasefire.

The key bargaining chip in recent negotiations has been the long-despised writing test. The coalition Government has accepted that it can do without this notoriously dubious exam, and the NAHT's leadership has come to the conclusion that this is enough of a victory to be going on with.

For ministers, things are relatively simple. Just about anyone involved in the primary sector will tell you that the writing test has long been deeply flawed - this was apparent well before 2011 threw up yet another marking debacle. Even those most committed to external assessment and league tables won't be sad to wave it farewell. So, for ministers, doing away with the test this week (as recommended by the Bew review of KS2 assessment) will have been a no-brainer.

Things are less clear for Russell Hobby, the thoughtful general secretary of the NAHT, who has been walking a precarious tightrope since ascending to his position a year ago. First he steered the heads' union away from following up 2010 with another - potentially damaging - Sats boycott this summer, persuading even his more radical members that it was worth waiting for the outcome of the Bew review before lobbing metaphorical pipe bombs at the Coalition. Now he is gently encouraging the same group to accept that the abolition of the writing test is an adequate concession and an important pointer towards ministers' direction of policy travel.

In both, Mr Hobby's lightness of touch is to be congratulated.

But make no mistake, there's still a long way to go before this peace process can be described as embedded. Many campaigners will treat this as nothing more than a temporary ceasefire - one that allows them to regroup the troops.

Another offensive will already be at the planning stage, and this time the objective will be the entire structure of KS2 external assessment. You in the Department for Education - you have been warned. Best spend your summer break filling sandbags. Gerard Kelly is away.

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