Monday, April 06, 2009

SATs Boycott

The joint call for a boycott by the largest teachers’ union (National Union of Teachers) and the main headteachers organisation (National Association of Headteachers) represents the most credible threat to the Key Stage 2 tests.

Almost every educational organisation and academic, across the political spectrum, has called for changes, if not outright abolition, of testing and league tables. Reports, enquiries and research papers must be straining every shelf in the misnamed Department for Children Schools and Families.

Last year Unicef reported on international comparisons of children’s welfare. Out of the twenty-one wealthiest industrialised countries the UK came bottom. Other studies have shown how children’s self-esteem is now linked to their academic ability. Scotland has never used SATs testing at 11 and Wales abandoned them in 2005. After last year’s marking fiasco the Key Stage 3 SATs in England were scrapped.

And yet, and yet, reasoned argument has failed, the government still clings on to Key Stage 2 SATs. There’s been so many letters written, calling for abolition that if quills were still in use every available bird would be denuded of feathers. The government’s response is always ‘standards’, this, despite the fact that when the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) remarked a sample of Key Stage 2 SATs papers, 22% of the English grades were incorrect.

So there it is, unpopular tests that are unfair and completely inaccurate.

The boycott call by the NUT and NAHT is a reprise of the NUT’s campaign in 2003. However, the problem then was, what did they mean by a ‘boycott’, who would be responsible for it, what would the action comprise of? Already there is the danger that it will be mired in legal technicalities, Phil Revell, chief executive of the National Governors’ Association has warned headteachers that any boycott might lead to disciplinary action.

A boycott could lean heavily on headteachers and the Year 6 teachers, who are usually members of senior management. The campaign should involve all members of staff in primary schools; personally I’d like to see a strike on one or more days during the SATs week. That way it would be a collective decision by all teachers to boycott testing, it wouldn’t isolate a few members of staff.

80% of primary heads are members of the NAHT. I’m sure there are older heads who can remember times, if not the Elysian Fields or a millenarian golden age, when children weren’t tested to destruction and phoney league tables weren’t used to judge schools. As retirement beckons there’s many who will be saying ‘sod it, let’s scrap the tests’. As for younger heads? They will be graduates of the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) this is the course that ensures schools are run by cloned, dull, conformist, automatons.

Local authorities employ teams of School Improvement Officers who constantly ‘monitor’ schools, any ‘under-performing’ heads are liable to get the Alan Sugar treatment. So just how many of them will be willing to participate in a SATs boycott and commit career suicide?

To its credit the NUT has led the campaign to abolish SATs. The only reason the ballot failed in 2003 was that the turn out was only 34%. It is though one thing to pass a conference resolution and another thing to get the members to participate. Most primary schools don’t have a union representative and many of the union branches are moribund. Before last year’s strike I visited some of our local schools, in some the reps had done a good job and the school was closed, in another the union posters were on the staffroom notice board but this was because a diligent school secretary opened the post and made sure they were displayed. In others I rang the intercom and asked to speak to the union rep, ‘we don’t have one’, could I speak to any union member, it was about the strike. After a few minutes the door would open slightly, enough to reveal one eye, a reluctant hand would appear, grasp the leaflets, hand and eye would retreat, door closed.

The National Association of Schoolteachers (NAS) and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) have, a year before it is muted, condemned the boycott call. This must take the proverbial, stale, mouldy staffroom biscuit. As part of the government’s ‘social partnership’ the two unions have signed agreements that replaced Management Allowances (MAs) with Teaching and Learning Responsibilities (TLRs) thereby reducing the pay of thousands of teachers; introduced performance management criteria that allow maverick heads to use our old friend test results to limit teachers movement up the pay scales; allowed teaching assistants to replace teachers in front of the class and when the government wanted to change teachers’ pensions in 2004, every union was calling for strike action, apart from the NAS, only a rare conference revolt brought them into line.

Just to look at TLRs in more detail, the old Management Allowances gave extra money to teachers involved in things like pastoral care, the new TLRs only provided extra cash for work involved with increased test scores. In about 100 schools where the union(s) were strong there was strike action by the NUT and or the NAS. ‘Look we are a union! We organise strikes!’ Well, even the state controlled unions in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia organised the odd strike, if they hadn’t they would have lost all credibility. The NAS signed the national agreement that replaced MAs with TLRs, despite the rearguard action in few schools, that did in the main win concessions, nationally, according to the School Teachers’ Review Body, 30,000 teachers lost pay. The NUT as usual talked a good fight, but refused to organise national action.

The NUT/NAHT SATs boycott is a ray of hope. One of the NAHT leaders described the SATs tests as, ‘child abuse’. I don’t believe that was hyperbole. Thousands of children leave primary school as ‘Level 3’s’ saying ‘I’m thick’.

We also need to get the support of parents. What about an alternative vision for Year 6?

· Learn a foreign language
· Improve the link with secondary schools for Year 7
· Write a short story
· Learn to play a musical instrument
· Go on an adventure holiday
· Put on a play
· Undertake a community project

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