Teachers set to axe school tables

Heads' action threatens two pillars of Labour education reform: pupil tests and league tables

The death knell for national curriculum tests was sounded by head teachers yesterday as they warned all preparatory work would cease in schools from September.

They added that industrial action would continue year after year until the tests – taken by 1.2 million seven and 11-year-olds a year – and primary school league tables were scrapped.

The decision by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) to ballot on a boycott of the tests in maths, English and science means the Schools Secretary Ed Balls is facing the biggest showdown with teachers since Labour was elected in 1997. It represents a serious falling out between Labour and the head teachers seen as crucial for support of their education reforms. It would also present the first major headache for a Tory adminstration if it wins the next general election.

A boycott would mean league tables being scrapped next year as there would be no information to use to compile them, said Mick Brookes, the NAHT general secretary. He was speaking after a vote in favour of balloting on a boycott – snubbing a plea from Mr Balls not to do so. In the vote, 94 per cent of delegates voted in support.

Attitudes towards the tests have hardened since last year's fiasco when thousands of results were delayed and a record number of appeals were lodged as a result of concern over marking standards. Primary school heads were also angered that Mr Balls scrapped tests for 14-year-olds but insisted those for 11-year-olds should go ahead. The NAHT will now send a letter to all parents of pupils who would be taking the tests next year insisting there will be no disruption to their children's education.

The ballot by the NAHT – its first ever ballot on industrial action – could deliver a hammer blow to the tests. The union represents 85 per cent of primary heads, with the rest mostly in the National Union of Teachers, which has also voted to ballot on a boycott.

Last night the heads' stance won support from parents. Margaret Morrissey of the pressure group Parents Outloud, said: "If parents feel their child is traumatised by the tests, they should support the headteachers. If [the tests] don't stop, then don't send the child to school during Sats week."

In his address to the conference, Mr Brookes made a "personal apology" to the 11-year-olds who will be sitting their national curriculum tests in two weeks' time. "I apologise ... [that] children will be going through the same farcical testing system that should have been abolished many years ago," he said.

"I apologise to all of the teachers that have worked so hard to enthuse and ignite the joy of learning in children that their best efforts are crushed by ... those who continue to support the current regime despite overwhelming evidence of the damage it does to children's learning and desire to learn. This is particularly true for children who struggle to make sense of the academic world through no fault of their own."

In a statement explaining the implications of its decision "to end the tyranny of testing", the NAHT said that children in their final year of primary school would have a "year of education ... not disruped by Sats", adding that "schools will no longer be exposed to the humiliation of league table misrepresentation".

The decision would mean inspectors from Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, would have to report on teaching rather than rely on statistics.

The NAHT vote came despite a personal plea from Mr Balls not to go ahead with the vote as an "expert group" – which is due to report later this week – is set to recommend changes to the current testing and assessment regime.

School report cards along the lines of those already in use in the US would be brought in to give a broader picture of schools' achievements. "They will make the old-style league tables a thing of the past," Mr Balls said.

He insisted he would not abolish the tests but added: "The last thing I want is for children and teachers to be overstressed by one particular set of tests".

Mr Balls' preference is for "stage not age-related tests", which pupils would sit when their teachers considered they were ready to take them. The Department for Children, Schools and Families has said it considers the heads' decision "illegal and irresponsible" – raising the prospect of legal action to stop a strike. The confrontation comes at a time of increasing pressure on Mr Balls, who is accused by the former head of the Government's exams watchdog, Dr Ken Boston, of "sexing-up" information against him to make him the sole scapegoat for last summer's test problems.

Dr Boston told a committee of MPs that ministers had accused him of ducking questions about the tests at a meeting he had not even attended.

Mr Balls has also been accused of "rigging" an important review of the primary school curriculum by refusing to allow former Ofsted inspector Sir Jim Rose, who headed the inquiry, to consider scrapping the tests.