Teachers threatened yesterday to boycott national curriculum tests taken by two million seven, 11 and 14-year-olds every year in protest at the increase of testing in schools.
Delegates at the National Union of Teachers conference in Bournemouth voted overwhelmingly in favour of calling on the Government to scrap both the tests and national exam league tables.
The decision, a defeat for the union's moderate executive, came just 24 hours after Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, had warned delegates that constant threats of industrial action were in danger of putting the Government's agenda for raising standards at risk and tarnishing the image of teaching.
The move was agreed despite the union leadership seeking to remove the call for teachers' views to be canvassed on whether to boycott the tests.
Speakers at the conference urged the Government to follow in the footsteps of the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies, both of which have decided to scrap exam league tables. The Welsh Assembly has gone one stage further, abandoning national tests for seven-year-olds as well.
Delegates added that the twin pressures of tests and league tables were forcing teachers to "teach to the test" and stressing children. Robert Palmer, from Medway in Kent, told the conference: "Education is more than just a series of tests and exams.... Our message to Estelle Morris should be clear: league tables are for football clubs not schools.''
Neil Taylor, from Waltham Forest in East London, added: "My education objection [to the tests] is that some students get labelled as failures." He said 14-year-olds were put into sets for maths and English based on the test results. "The biggest problem I then have is that their results can demotivate them," he added.
The union will now conduct a survey of its members' views on the tests, which Doug McAvoy, the union's general secretary, believed would be overwhelmingly hostile. "A boycott would be very popular with members," he added. The union will seek support from parents and other teachers' unions for a campaign against the tests. A boycott could be in place in time for next year's tests.
Mr McAvoy said his main reservation was that the boycott could coincide with national industrial action planned in the autumn over teachers' workload if the Government failed to fund a package to reduce it.
The conference decision provoked fury from ministers last night. A spokeswomen for the Department for Education and Skills said: "This is a totally absurd outcome. The national curriculum is not up for negotiation... because it has proved its worth by providing a framework for learning and ensuring that standards are raised across the board.''
However, the tests vote was the second setback for the Government at the conference. Earlier, delegates had voted for strike action over plans to allow private companies to run state schools – currently being debated in parliament.
They claimed it would siphon off cash for company profits which could have been used to hire more teachers, buy books or improve the condition of school buildings. They warned they would strike if any take-over by a private company led to a worsening of their pay or conditions.Reuse content