Teachers' leaders last night backed a boycott of National Curriculum tests for 1.2 million primary schoolchildren. Delegates at the National Union of Teachers' annual conference in Cardiff voted unanimously in favour of industrial action aimed at next year's English, maths and science tests for seven- and 11-year-olds.
There were cheers, chants of "no more SATs" and a standing ovation for speakers as the motion was passed after an emotional 25-minute debate. Delegates wore T-shirts proclaiming "No Useless Tests".
The move puts the union on a collision course with ministers, who have warned that any refusal to deliver the tests would be illegal.
The 190,000-strong NUT, which will ballot members on the boycott, claims the tests are harming children's education as they spent many months being coached for them – with subjects such as history, geography and art sidelined by schools anxious to do well in the tests and gain a high league-table ranking.
Hazel Danson, a primary teacher from Kirklees who chairs the union's education committee,` described the tests as "educationally barren". "It would be reckless and irresponsible if we allowed the situation in primary schools to remain," she added "I want to teach children. I don't want to damage them."
Max Hyde, a Warwickshire member, added: "At best they are detrimental and damage the curriculum and at worst, particularly for our most vulnerable children, they are perilously close to a form of child abuse."
There were cries of "shame" when delegates were told that Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Education, had described the NUT's action as "irresponsible". Sara Tomlinson, from Lambeth, south London, said: "It is Mr Balls who is irresponsible."
Last night's vote will be followed by a similar vote at the annual conference of the National Association of Head Teachers next month. If that is carried, it will be the first ballot that the association – the only organisation representing primary school heads – has held on industrial action.
Martin Reed, the NUT president, said yesterday: "Think of the prize when we win. It will restore magic moments to the primary classroom as everyday events, not as rarities." He added: "The Government – whichever government it is in 2010 – will have to understand one obvious fact: there will be no National Curriculum testing forced on our schools: not in 2010 nor in any year after that."
The boycott will mean teachers will refuse to do any preparatory work for the tests or invigilate. Christine Blower, the NUT's acting general secretary, said there would be no disruption in schools. Children would do other work – and enjoy a broader curriculum, she said. She stressed that the union was prepared to negotiate an alternative to the tests before embarking on the ballot.
Immediately after the vote a spokeswoman for Mr Balls's department urged NUT members to vote against the boycott. Government lawyers had advised headteachers that refusing to administer the tests would be unlawful because it was part of their contractual duty. School governors have also warned that headteachers could face disciplinary action.
Mr Balls has set up a group to review testing following last summer's fiasco, when SATs results were delayed. It is expected to report next month. He is understood to favour a system whereby pupils sit the tests when they are ready – rather than all on the same days in May. Tests for seven-year-olds are internally marked and the results are not published.