Gloves off in war against secondary tests

14th June 1996 at 01:00
David Henderson reports, below and opposite, on the Educational Institute of Scotland's 150th conference.

Concerns about underfunding and the threat to comprehensive education dominated the Educational Institute of Scotland's 150th annual conference in Perth last week as the union's leadership again fought off all except one call for industrial action.

A relatively minor proposal from West Dunbartonshire to stiffen next year's pay bargaining by preparing a simultaneous campaign of action was the left-wing's sole victory by 146-130 votes. Other more significant calls for action over school closures, class sizes, redundancies and cuts were defeated by substantial margins, along with a planned boycott of Higher Still.

But the union's executive council stiffened its opposition to the Government's outline scheme of national testing in the first two years of secondary school by agreeing to work with parents, local authorities and political parties.

May Ferries, the institute's incoming president, proposing an emergency motion on testing, told the meeting: "Parents will not wear it and neither will we."

Ms Ferries continued: "Michael Forsyth will be sitting his national test soon and in my professional judgment he is going to fail."

Ian McCalman, the new vice-president, said the imposition of tests was "government by diktat" and highlighted the Scottish Secretary's "total ignorance of the level and quality of assessment in Scottish secondaries".

There was no widespread dissatisfaction about assessment in the first two years of secondary school and national testing cut across the agreed consensus on 5-14 testing, Mr McCalman said. Union opposition may extend to a boycott, he predicted.

Myra Armstrong, executive council and Edinburgh, believed the information Mr Forsyth wanted to make available to parents was designed to categorise pupils and draw comparisons with others. "It also raises the spectre of streaming and it is about dividing teacher from teacher, school from school," Ms Armstrong argued. She called on parents to withdraw their children from the tests.

Ann Begg, Angus, told delegates teachers favoured the new reports to parents because they provided more information than a single grade from a national test. "Never fear, Raymond Robertson (the Education Minister) will not be there to see this because I am the (Labour) candidate who is going to defeat him at the general election."

In his presidential address, Malcolm Maciver, rejected selection in schools as backed by Mr Forsyth since it implied rejection for many. "I believe that we need to acknowledge that the education provision that exists in Scotland today is extraordinarily fragile," Mr Maciver said. "I would further contend that it is the teachers, lecturers and those directly involved in day-to-day delivery who are papering over the cracks."

The education service was under acute pressure from inadequate funding and this manifested in different ways: "Cuts in staffing levels, with consequential increase in class sizes, inadequate accommodation, a failure to resource innovation, a collapse of support services in many parts of Scotland."

Mr Maciver attacked the Government's "arrogant misuse of taxpayers' money" in increasing the subsidy to the independent sector through the assisted places scheme while state schools were being cut back. Ministers had stopped governing, he said, in the run-up to the general election.

"Against this background of drift, incompetence and theatre of the absurd our members deliver. Against a background of anti-teacher sentiment and cheap gibes about their lack of professionalism, they deliver," he stated.

But Mr Maciver contended that teachers were losing confidence in those who ran the service and the implementation of the 5-14 programme and Higher Still had done nothing to restore confidence.

Brian Boyd, director of the Quality in Education Centre at Strathclyde University, who was presented with an honorary fellowship, told delegates comprehensive education was "worth fighting for" to counter the divisions, poverty and lack of opportunity that were all too evident, especially in the west of Scotland. The education system was "creaking badly" in certain areas, Professor Boyd said.

Although hostile to national testing in the first two years of secondary school, Professor Boyd argued that more had to be done to ease the difficulties of transition from primary to secondary.

He particularly lamented the dropping of the 10-14 report, not through cost but because "the Government did not want to give teachers control over the curriculum".

Professor Boyd also called for an end to the "departmentalism" of secondary schools and a hierarchical structure that was no longer appropriate.

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