Next year's curriculum tests could be boycott-free if members of the National Union of Teachers follow their leadership's advice.
A ballot is to be held next month asking whether NUT members will be willing to co-operate with the 1995 testing and assessment arrangements. The national executive has called for a yes vote. The announcement, following a meeting between NUT officials and the Education Secretary, is the best Christmas present Gillian Shephard could ask for. If the vote is yes, then the past two years of turmoil could be at an end.
Doug McAvoy, the NUT general secretary, denied that the volte-face was a face-saving measure because many of his members had lost the will to continue with the boycott.
He said a recent survey showed that more than 90 per cent of respondents were unhappy with the testing and assessment arrangements. Despite this, the union has advised its members to drop the boycott.
He said that the union still felt that the tests were educationally unsound but said it was important to do them so the union could contribute to an evaluation of testing and assessment promised by Mrs Shephard during their meeting.
Calling the "concession" a "tremendous achievement", Mr McAvoy said the evaluation should be similar to the review of the curriculum and workload carried out by Sir Ron Dearing. He said the impact of the tests must be looked at and alternative arrangements discussed.
He said: "Mrs Shephard's willingness to understand the professional and educational concerns of teachers contributed to this decision. The new ballot will ensure that members will continue to be protected from any excessive workload flowing from the testing and assessment arrangements."
The "climb-down" is expected to lead to an acrimonious annual conference, with left-wing activists saying the boycott still has grassroots support. Carol Regan, NUT vice-president, said she would be fighting the decision and will be campaigning for a no vote.
The NUT became the only union to continue with the boycott last year and it has become further isolated by Labour's decision to throw its weight behind school league tables, modified to take account of different pupil intakes. The party's new education spokesman, David Blunkett, has also distanced himself from the NUT following charges that Ann Taylor, his predecessor, followed its policy too closely.
If the boycott is dropped, then the Government's plans to introduce key stage 2 tests, albeit without league tables, will be able to take place.
Welcoming the NUT decision Mrs Shephard said: "The executive's decision paves the way to peace in our schools. The Government and its partners in the education service can now concentrate on raising standards by implementing the major reforms of the last few years. That is excellent news for pupils and parents."
She said the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority would evaluate the tests "as in past years", and advise her on any improvements needed.
* The Socialist Teachers Association and the Campaign for a Fighting Democratic Union, the two main left-wing groupings within the union have joined forces to launch an anti-SATs campaign and together with members of the London Association of Teachers of English will hold public meetings supporting a no vote. They intend to lobby the union's executive at its next meeting in January.
Bernard Regan, STA member, said: "Some members of LATE say they will continue with the boycott even if there is a yes vote."
He said the union was leaving the door open for the introduction of league tables at key stage 2. Mrs Shephard said the tables would not be introduced next year but they could be in place by 1996 or later when the tests have bedded down.