English groups try to keep up boycott

30th December 1994 at 00:00
Frances Rafferty reports on why the National Union of Teachers is facing a rebellion. English teachers - whose opposition to curriculum tests triggered the all-out boycott - are to continue their opposition in defiance of the leadership of the National Union of Teachers, which has called on members to vote to end the action.

With other pro-boycott supporters, they have been working hard over the Christmas holiday period to mobilise forces to keep the anti-standard assessment task campaign on the road.

John Wilkes, a leading member of the London Association of Teachers of English and one of the most militant voices in the boycott of English tests, said many members were angry that Doug McAvoy, the union's general secretary, announced on almost the last day of term that he would be holding a ballot in January.

He said: "I have been telephoning colleagues who are equally angry. We have had ballots and surveys which show there is still support for the boycott, and all the material we have had from the union has been saying why it is right to boycott the tests - now the national executive is telling us exactly the opposite.

"Even if the vote to end the boycott is carried, many teachers will find it too late to prepare and make plans to do them at this point in the school year. However, many more will continue to refuse to do them on principle whatever the outcome - I think the vote will be a close-run thing."

His organisation has been mailing members to urge them to continue their opposition to SATs. He claimed the leadership was being disingenuous by maintaining it had won concessions from the Government. Education Secretary Gillian Shephard has agreed to conduct an evaluation of tests and assessment after talks with the union.

"We are concerned that the change of policy has more to do with internal union politics than the interests of teachers or children," said Mr Wilkes.

His views were echoed by the more moderate National Association of Teachers of English. Anne Barnes, its general secretary, said she doubted that many English teachers would be voting to end the action: "Most English teachers feel that nothing has been resolved and believe the tests are inappropriate and distort the curriculum. Teachers at key stage 3 are still very unhappy about the Shakespeare part of the tests."

She said it was widely believed that the planned evaluation was merely a face-saving device by those on both sides of the dispute.

English teachers have always been in the vanguard of the opposition to the tests. Their protests were gradually followed by those taking other subjects, and by primary teachers, until the anti-SATs feeling grew into an all-out boycott supported by the three main classroom teacher unions.

As the review by Sir Ron Dearing began to solve the workload issue, both the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers advised members to do the tests. The NUT stuck it out for the following year, but now the national executive has said that despite its reservations on the educational value of the tests, it thinks NUT members should administer them as part of the evaluation. Persistent opposition from English teachers persuaded ministers to back away from plans to introduce compulsory reading lists for secondary pupils and modify their emphasis on Standard English for seven-year-olds.

The result of the ballot - the date had not been decided at the time of going to press - is expected by the end of January.

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