Headteachers have called off their boycott of national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds after being promised an independent review by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove. His offer, just before a meeting of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), persuaded its leaders to call off industrial action by 34 votes to two.
The decision is a significant coup for Mr Gove and leaves the headteachers’ new general secretary Russell Hobby pinning his hopes on being able to persuade the review group and ministers to drop their insistence that both tests and league tables should remain their present form.
In his letter to Mr Hobby, Mr Gove acknowledges that it is “undesirable" that the current tests - taken by 600,000 11-year-olds in maths and English every summer - “lead too many schools to drill children for tests, spending too much time on test preparaton in Year 6 [the last year of primary school] at the expense of productive teaching and learning”.
He adds: "It is important that we make sure the tests command the maximum level of confidence amongst the public and the profession."
Leaders of the NAHT and National Union of Teachers both boycotted the tests this summer claiming that the "high stakes" nature of them (they are used to draw up league tables of primary schools' performance) led to schools spending too much time coaching children for them at the expense of teaching others subjects like art, music and drama.
As a result of their action they were cancelled in more than 4,000 schools – one in four of those taking them.
Both unions had been expected to continue the boycott next year as Mr Gove had made it plain they would go ahead in 2011, regardless of any review.
Significantly in his letter, he praises NAHT members for the way they had "articulated many of the most significant criticisms of how the tests operate". He said he wanted it to be "fully involved" in the review which will be headed by an independent chair and include four headteachers (three primary and one secondary) on its review body. However, he made it clear that would not be possible if heads were taking industrial action over the tests.
In a letter to members explaining the decision to call off the boycott, Mr Hobby and union president Mike Welsh say: "This review offers a genuine opportunity for the profession to shape the future of assessment for all children.
"Particpating in SATs [the tests for 11-year-olds] is unpalatable. The choice before us is not whether the current regime is good or bad. If SATs were wrong last year, they are wrong this year. The choice before us is which strategy will best achieve a change to the present system."
They bluntly acknowledge: "We cannot claim that ministers agree with us. Far from it, they have preference for tests and league tables. They have been upfront about that."
They add, however: "We do think they are open to persuasion through the intellectual and moral case that we will make."
Mr Hobby told The Independent that he felt the union would lose influence with ministers over a range of concerns – such as reforming Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, and school inspection – if they continued with a boycott. They would also "back them into a corner" leading them to continue with the present system.
"I think quite a lot of people walked into the room (for the NAHT council meeting) expecting thinking they would go ahead with the boycott," he said.
"No-one's saying the SATS are good - but if we go down this path next year's SATs could just be the last bad SATs and be replaced with something better."
The review body, whose membership will be announced soon, will be charged with producing a report by Spring 2011. However, any recommendations will not be able to be implemented until after next year's tests.
The NAHT decision leaves the NUT isolated if it wants to continue with its boycott. Privately, ministers believe any continued boycott would be far less effective without the support of the NAHT - which represents the vast majority of primary school heads.
Mr Hobby, who has only been in office 27 days, acknowledging he was putting his reputation on the line over the decison but added: "I think Michael Gove is genuinely interested in the serious arguments we have put forward about the tests."
He has already floated the idea of transferring them to the start of secondary schooling in an attempt to stop primary schools teaching to the tests.
Mr Hobby added: "To be honest, if the Labour Government had offered us something similar last year, we would have taken it last year and there would probably have been no boycott.
"I don't think government ministers agree with us. I think they think the testing is a good thing and they quite like league tables.
"If we went straight into industrial action now, though, all we're going to do is box them in and have more SATs. This way allows them more space to think about things and we are confident we can make a good case for change."
Union leaders have argued for a sample of youngsters to be tested every year to ensure standards are being maintained - thus losing the link between the tests and the league tables.
In their joint letter Mr Hobby and Mr Welsh, a serving primary school head, conclude: "We belive it is a credible review. We believe we can change the Government's view, that they are sincere and that we should trust them.”
A spokesman for the Department for Education said ministers were committed to external accountability of schools but recognised concerns had been expressed about the tests.
Of the review, he added: "We are glad the NAHT are with us on this."
John Dixon, head of the NUT's organisation and membership department, said the union was having its own discussions with Mr Gove on the review and had not yet taken a decision on next year's tests,