Tests for 11-year-olds are just as important as GCSEs and A-levels in holding schools to account, Gordon Brown declared yesterday.
His intervention in the row over national curriculum SATs tests comes just as heads and teachers prepare to ballot on a boycott of them next year.
The stand-off between the two sides makes it likely that the row over tests will be the Government's next major confrontation with trade unions following the post office workers' strike.
Writing in The Times Educational Supplement, Mr Brown said: "I'm not willing to accept excuses for under-performance. Every school should be doing the best by all its pupils. But progress relies on the need to retain clear accountability through testing. This means at the end of primary school as much as at the end of secondary school."
He added: "We must do all we can to ensure children have mastered the basics by the end of primary school. Even in the most challenging economic times, schools must continue to transform the prospects of every pupil, particularly those from modest backgrounds, by responding to their personal needs."
His comments come just days before the two unions that voted for a ballot on a boycott of the 2010 tests earlier this year – the National Union of Teachers and National Association of Head Teachers – embark on the next stage of their campaign against them. The NUT is to hold an indicative ballot to test the mood of its members before going ahead with a full-scale ballot on a boycott next year. The NAHT will also be sounding out its members next month.
Both Mick Brookes, general secretary of the NAHT, and Christine Blower, the NUT leader, have declared that "the end is nigh" for SATs tests in the wake of their conference votes in favour of a boycott ballot. They argue a boycott will free teachers from having to "teach to the test" to ensure a good showing in exam league tables – and therefore provide pupils with a broader and more balanced curriculum.
The tests next year will be sat by 600,000 children at the beginning of May – thus potentially presenting an incoming government with its first major challenge.
The latest Mr Brown can call an election is in May – which theoretically could mean the campaign will not end until the beginning of June.
A successful boycott – the NAHT and the NUT between them represent the majority of teachers and heads in primary schools – would still leave a new administration having to sort out the problem even if the election is delayed until June.
One idea floated by Michael Gove, the Conservatives' education spokesman, is to transfer the tests – in English and maths – to the start of secondary schooling. The results could still be traced back to the feeder primary schools to produce league tables – but Mr Gove believes that, by switching them to secondary schools, it will cut down on teaching to the test. It would call for no more work than secondary schools already do as most heads distrust the SATs results, believing they are not a true reflection of children's ability.
In his article, Mr Brown also confirmed government plans to produce a School Report Card for every school – which would list schools' achievements in a range of areas. Ministers have said they believe this would give parents more information than tables concentrating on raw test scores. However, they will not scrap the tables.
Consensus on tests is needed
The stand-off over national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds between teachers and the Government shows no sign of abating.
On one side there is the Prime Minister, who insists they are just as important for holding primary schools to account as A-levels are for secondary schools. On the other, there are the heads and the teachers who want to mount a boycott of them and declare that their end is nigh.What needs to happen is for both sides to explore areas where there can be agreement.
It should be possible to convince ministers, for instance, that, if there is a School Report Card that covers a wider range of topics than just the tests, there is no need to continue with the league tables. That would remove the need – as seen in some schools – to teach to the test.
Apart from that, the most interesting solution on the table is Conservative education spokesman Michael Gove's suggestion that the tests should be taken in the first term of secondary school.