Primary teachers may ballot on tests despite Clarke vow

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Britain's biggest teachers' union is to press ahead with plans for a boycott of national curriculum tests despite a government pledge to put the enjoyment back into primary school education.

Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, announced a series of concessions over the Government's tests and targets regime for seven-year-olds which he said would allow schools the time to provide their pupils with the kind of "magical experience" in lessons that they should be able to enjoy.

However, the concessions were immediately seized on by teachers' leaders as a tacit admission that tests for seven-year-olds were wrong - but that the Government was still refusing to abolish them, as had happened in Wales.

John Bangs, assistant general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said that, as a result, a ballot on a boycott was still very much "on the agenda" for this autumn. He added, however, that yesterday's decision could be a first step towards the eventual abandonment of the tests.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "The Government's primary strategy is a real move in the right direction but it does not go far enough."

As a result of yesterday's blueprint, entitled Excellence and Enjoyment: A Strategy for Primary Schools, controversial targets for getting 85 per cent of 11-year-olds to reach the required standard in maths and English tests by 2004 have been all but abandoned.

The document says instead it should be reached "as soon as possible" and that 2006 is a more likely date. In addition, schools will be able to set their own targets, rather than have them handed down by local education authorities.

More weight will also be given to teachers' assessments of their pupils' ability at seven, rather than relying on the results of external tests, and individual pupils will be able to sit the tests when they are ready for them rather than taking them en bloc in exam conditions every May.

Mr Clarke sought to distance the Government from what has been described in the past by opponents as a "Gradgrind" approach to the primary school curriculum, acknowledging: "Every primary school has its own character and its own identity."

He said he wanted to see more time devoted to subjects such as art, sports, music and drama in the primary school curriculum. "We've responded to those that have said there is nothing more demoralising than ending up with targets that don't relate to the children in their particular school," he added. "I do believe that breadth and diversity is at the heart of what a good primary school is like. I genuinely believe primary education should be a magical experience and in many schools it is."

Most teachers' organisations welcomed the thrust of the Government's proposals as a sign that ministers were allowing schools more freedom to interpret the curriculum - although there was a warning from the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers that compelling teachers to give all parents information about their children's assessment at seven might conflict with aims to reduce the profession's workload.

The Conservatives claimed the concessions were "a cynical exercise in disguising failure". "As a result of the Government missing its 2002 targets, a quarter of children leave primary school unable to read, write and count properly," said its education spokesman, Damian Green. "Now they are admitting that they will fail their next target, too."

The Government was also given a sharp reminder of the difficulties it faces on school funding when Debbie Snookes, head of Torpoint infants' school in Cornwall and one of a specially selected group of headteachers invited to attend yesterday's launch, told Mr Clarke she had been forced to make two teachers and two classroom assistants redundant. Shesaid she faced a £100,000 shortfall in her £750,000 budget this year.