NAHT general secretary to boycott SATs

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The Independent Online

Mick Brookes will quite literally be riding off into the sunset after delivering what he hopes is a killer blow to the current testing regime in state schools.

The general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers is planning a 2,000-mile sponsored motor-bike ride around Africa to raise money for the children’s charity UNICEF after retiring this summer.

However, before that, this headteacher with an unusual passion in education circles has another date with destiny – delivering a successful boycott of the national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds.

The action – against tests due to be sat by 600,000 11-year-olds in maths and English in the week beginning 10 May – is unprecedented in the union’s history.

Its members have joined forces with the National Union of Teachers in backing the boycott, registering a 61 per cent vote in favour of industrial action in a ballot.

Mr Brookes told The Independent: “What we’re doing now is most important.

“It could be the catalyst for a much more balanced school curriculum for primary schoolchildren.”

He sees the vote in favour of a boycott as symbolic of a much wider frustration among heads with the way successive governments have been dictating to them how they should run their schools.

“We’re talking about taking back professional control over the way our schools are run,” he said.

“The vote shows that school leaders are prepared to stand up and be counted.

“We’re not talking about going back to the days when there was no accountability but what we are talking about is putting a stop to government attempts to micro-manage what schools should do.”

The heads’ (and teachers’) main argument with the national curriculum tests is that they dominate the curriculum in the final year of primary schooling too much.

The results are used to compile primary school league tables so that year is used largely to coach pupils for the tests – with the result that other elements of the curriculum, such as drama and history, can go out of the window.

The road to a boycott of the tests is fraught with perhaps as much danger as the road from Port Elizabeth in South Africa to Durban – where Mr Brookes will complete his sponsored bike ride in October.

For a start, the unions could face legal action – possibly from the Department for Children, Schools and Families although more likely from local authorities – on the grounds it is the statutory duty of a headteacher to conduct the tests in their school.

But both unions are confident they can survive a legal challenge.

Then, of course, there is the timing of the boycott – starting as it does just three days after the result of the Genral Election is known.

All three party education spokesmen – Ed Balls for Labour, Michael Gove for the Conservatives and David Laws for the Liberal Democrats – have promised talks with the NAHT and the NUT on Friday 7 May with a view to head off the boycott. All three parties will also send education spokesmen to address the union’s conference next weekend.

Both Mr Gove and Mr Balls have said that the tests are here to stay for the present while recognising there may be room for a review in the future.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has argued in the Times Educational Supplement that they could be replaced by teacher assessment.

Mick Brookes accepts that many heads who voted against a boycott – or did not vote (there was a 49.7 per cent turnout in the ballot) – are unlikely to follow the traditional trade union path of solidarity behind the majority vote.

Some believe in principle that the tests should go ahead, he says. Others – especially those in schools failed by Ofsted, the education watchdog – would feel vulnerable if the tests were scrapped in their school.

He estimates between 6,000 and 7,000 of the 16,000 schools taking the tests will have to abandon them – enough to make it impossible to draw up primary school league tables next week.

Of course, the tests boycott is not the only subject that will be exercising heads at the weekend.

A glance at the motions to be debated shows that Ofsted has resumed its place as the schools’ bete noire – a position it had briefly vacated after the departure of Chris Woodhead as chief schools inspector just over a decade ago.

A new inspection regime – under which schools can be failed if they fall short in just one category during the inspection and there is more weight placed on academic attainment – is the reason.

“We are looking for reform of Ofsted,” he said.

One priority for heads would be to separate safeguarding schools from inspections. At least 17 schools have been marked down as a result of their failure to run adequate checks on all staff. A bureaucratic failure in this department says nothing about the school’s academic record, Mr Brookes argued.

Similarly, he would like inspectors to take more account of a school’s background when assessing their academic performance. “At the moment it is almost impossible for a special school to be ranked outstanding,” he said. “We think the inspections should be carried out by HMI (the traditional inspectorate before Ofsted).” The private inspection teams currently in use are too varied in their inspection standards, he added.

Mick Brookes took over as head of the NAHT five years ago with a promise to turn it into a campaigning association. Previously, under the stewardship of David Hart, it spent more of its time seeking influence at the top table.

He believes that the Sats boycott vote is a sign of his success in his main aim of giving the union more campaigning teeth.

As a result, he is happy now to leave the job to others once the boycott has ended successfully. He really does want to spend more time with his family. His wife, Karen, is a headteacher in Nottingham but the job entails him living in Haywards Hearth, Sussex – the union’s headquarters – during the week.

His retirement will also give him time to pursue his two other loves – motor-biking and playing bass guitar in a rock band.