Testing time for parents

`It is an horrendous waste of time and money, and for what?'; `Parental support is fairly high and I would say it is growing'
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Most teachers' unions have called off their boycotts of government tests. But, says Fran Abrams, that does not mean the fight is over

Peace will reign in the classroom this spring after two years of test boycotts by teachers. Or will it?

While all the main teachers' unions have called off their boycotts, there are still pockets of resistance. Many more parents, meanwhile, are joining the campaign.

The proportion of children who are withdrawn from tests or whose teachers refuse to implement them this year will be small, but some areas of the countryremain a thorn in the flesh of ministers who are anxious to produce national league tables of results.

Sam Cottle, aged seven, will not be taking the Government's tests in English, maths and science,and nor will many of his classmates at Ashley Down Infants' School in Bristol. His mother, Lucy Young, is among a number of parents who intend to withdraw their children from the exercise.

"I feel very anti the idea of formal testing at seven," Lucy says. "I know the teachers are already continually assessing him, and we get very good feedback once a term at parents' evenings. It is incredibly detailed and it is much more relevant and accurate than for my child to sit a formal, one-off test."

The parents of 28 out of 72 children in Sam's year group have said that they will be withdrawing their children from the tests, which are due to start on 2 May at their school - testing can take place from halfway through the spring term until halfway through the summer term. Jenni Pizer, who is co-ordinating the rebel parents' group, hopes that the number will rise still further. Although none of her four children is being tested this year, she says she will withdraw them from tests throughout their school life - at seven, 11 and 14.

"There is a lot of feeling - the parents are basically fed up. I don't think it is fair on our seven-year-olds. It is an horrendous waste of time and money, and for what? I haven't spoken to anyone in education who can tell me anything positive about them," she says.

The Bristol parents are among hundreds who will be following the advice of the national campaign against the tests, which claims its support has grown as the teachers' boycott has waned.

The group's database now bears 1,000 contact names, many of them representing a number of parents in a particular area.

Lorna Davies, co-ordinator of the group, believes that parents were able to be complacent while the teachers' boycott continued but now many are taking action rather than let their children take the tests.

"It has taken a while to get going, but parental support is fairly high and I would say it is growing every day," she said.

The campaign hopes to exploit a loophole in the 1988 Education Reform Act, allowing children with special needs to be withdrawn from tests. It has given parents a standard letter to send to schools arguing, among other things, that the tests would cause their child unnecessary stress. If the head teacher refuses to accept this, the parents can appeal to the school's governors. By the time this process is complete, the tests will usually be over and the child will have missed them.

Nationally, parental support for testing is still low, though it is growing. Tests for seven-year-olds were favoured by 53 per cent in a recent survey by Oxford Brookes University compared with 48 per cent in 1987. Tests for 11-year-olds are more popular, with support having grown from 75 per cent to 80 per cent.

There is continued resistance, too, among manyteachers. The Government's offer of external markers and extra supply cover to lessen their burden will remove their argument that an unreasonable workload is involved and will, in most cases, ensure that the tests go ahead.

But in some areas, the local authorities are saying that the money which has been provided for supply cover is not enough. Schools faced with this problem have a legal justification for not going ahead with the tests for seven-year-olds, and some will almost certainly call a halt to them.

Teachers' union leaders, particularly the National Association of Head Teachers, which has published a survey showing that supply cover will be inadequate in many areas, have warned that fresh boycotts could happen. But, as yet, no schools have announced that they are calling off the tests.

Ron Haycock, local secretary of the National Union of Teachers in Waltham Forest, London, has surveyed memberson whether the supply cover in the area is adequate. He says that even in schools where there is four days' cover for seven-year-olds, many teachers feel that this is inadequate. But the national headquarters of the union is not likely to authorise action in many cases, he believes.

"They could find they don't do the tests at all in extreme cases, or schools could be told to do them until the cover runs out, then to stop doing them," he said.