Gove: 'League tables will be here to stay if you elect us'

Despite teachers' unions threatening to boycott Sats testing next year, the Tories have no intention of scrapping them if they win power. Richard Garner reports
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The Independent Online

A pledge to keep controversial tests for 11-year-olds and league tables will form a key plank of the Conservatives' election manifesto, their schools spokesman Michael Gove reveals today.

"We will make it clear that the tests and league tables will be here to stay if you elect a Conservative government," he says in an interview with The Independent.

The pledge threatens to plunge a new Conservative government into immediate conflict with teachers' leaders as both the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Head Teachers are planning a boycott of the national curriculum tests next year.

Next year's tests will begin on 13 May – just a week after one of the dates often floated for the election to take place.

However, Mr Gove is adamant that the results of externally marked national curriculum tests (Sats) are essential for giving parents "robust data on the performance of schools".

He said that the Conservatives would scrap plans favoured by Labour to introduce new US-style school report cards, which Schools Secretary Ed Balls sees replacing league tables as the main means of providing parents with information about schools.

The cards give all schools an overall grade for performance plus individual grades in areas such as exam performance, behaviour and how much they have improved pupils' performance.

However, Mr Gove said: "I think the report cards will replace sharp accountability with fuzzy accountability – which would detract from the central elements of a school's performance."

Mr Gove said he believed the manifesto pledge would leave teachers' unions with "a difficult choice", adding: "Would they really want to disrupt the tests which had just been seen to be supported by a new Conservative government with a democratic mandate?

"You will have a government that has a clear mandate from the electorate showing they are what parents want."

Mr Gove stressed he would be ready to discuss changes and acknowledged a problem over too much "teaching to the tests" – a key union concern – in the final year of primary schooling.

He was prepared to consider piloting the idea of transferring them to the first year of secondary schooling, he said, a move which has been welcomed by eminent educationalists such as Sir Michael Barber, Tony Blair's first education adviser at Downing Street. It would go ahead on the understanding it was easy to track the results back to pupils' primary schools.

The election pledge would put "clear blue water" between the Conservatives and the Government. Mr Balls has indicated externally marked tests could be replaced by internal teacher assessments in future.

In his interview, Mr Gove also marked out the first key priorities of an incoming Conservative administration.

There would be an immediate Bill to allow for a wide range of bidders – such as teachers, parents and faith groups – to set up their own Swedish-style state-funded schools.

"It will be a measure of our intent – Labour did it with abolishing assisted places (for state school youngsters in private schools) and reducing class sizes," he said.

A body would be set up to scrutinise applications. He stressed that there would be no target for the number of independent schools – although 200 parents and 100 teachers had already expressed an interest in setting up their own schools.

"I hope this will lever up performance in existing schools (as they face competition)," he said. "In fact, if no new schools were created but all schools improved as a result of the potential to open them, I would be delighted."

He said he would also relax restrictions forbidding state schools from offering pupils the International GCSE – favoured by many in private schools as tougher than the GCSE.

In addition, there would be immediate measures to strengthen teachers' powers over discipline. In particular, guidance urging teachers to abandon searches of pupils if they felt there would be any resistance would be reviewed. Entry qualifications to teaching would also be raised to improve the quality of teaching.

Mr Gove made it clear: "My first priority is to improve state schools.

"If more people left the independent sector for the state sector because our reforms had improved state schools, I would be happy with that."