Education Quandary: Will my union's decision to boycott this year's SATs tests undermine our professional authority?

Hilary's advice

I must be honest. My reaction to this question comes filtered through some unhappy memories of teacher strikes and protests back in the 1980s. There was a day when I was reporting on a case arising out of a school-gate protest that was being heard at Highbury Corner Magistrates' Court when a group of Socialist Workers Party teachers, objecting to a feature I had written in The Times Educational Supplement, rammed me against a wall, spat in my face and told me they knew where I lived. And there were all the many days when my son was unable to go to primary school because of teacher strikes.

That half-a-decade of teacher unrest left a long legacy of damage. Children's education was harmed, schools took years to rebuild their full range of programmes and public respect for teachers never quite recovered.

So my reaction to your question about whether, as you put it, teacher strikes and boycotts "make us look like factory workers" is, simply, yes. In fact I'd go further and say there is a direct link between what happened in the 1980s and what is happening now, because one result of those years of industrial action was to edge teacher unions out of national debates about education policy, so that the teachers' view of things such as the national curriculum and external testing has never been properly heard.

That is why we have this summer's proposed boycott of the Key Stage 2 tests. Although only a minority of school heads voted for this, the vast majority of heads and teachers believe these tests are of no value to children and distort the primary school curriculum. They say they cause stress and anxiety, and exist mainly so schools can be ranked in league tables, and politicians can "prove" that standards are improving. I, and many other parents, agree.

But the boycott has been ill-timed. Children, already primed for the test, will want to take it. And it puts at risk all the respect for heads and teachers that has been so painfully rebuilt. Teachers badly need to be respected and listened to, but this will only happen if they behave like the professionals they are.

Readers' advice

The boycott is a professional decision. School leaders are the people who know what is best for children. and the Government could have listened to them and abolished these tests when it abolished the KS3 tests in secondary schools, but it refused to do so. Direct action is now the only way to force change.

Phil Kenmore, London E17

This move has split schools. Some leaders have voted for it because they think that if they don't it looks as if they support the tests. Others are saying they would have voted for it if it had been conducted properly and not been called at the last minute when children and parents are expecting the tests. My own view is that it is not the tests themselves that are the problem, but the way that the data is used in league tables. It is wrong that a school's performance is judged on test results when all schools experience pupils coming and going, and often new pupils are sitting the tests without any previous preparation by the school.

Jennifer Pires, Staffordshire

What will replace the external tests when they are scrapped, as they will be eventually? Teacher assessment could turn out to be a far worse option if it is more complicated and time-consuming. We need a government that believes enough in teachers to allow something simple and efficient to be developed, and then leaves schools and moderators alone to do it by themselves.

Mike Roberts, Hampshire

Next week's quandary

My son used to love science, and we always thought he would take science A-levels, but he has done almost no practical science since he started at secondary school and now seems completely turned off. Is this common? And is there anything we can do to rekindle his enthusiasm?

Send your replies, or any quandaries you would like to have addressed, to h.wilce@btinternet. com. Please include your postal address. Readers whose replies are printed will receive a Collins Paperback English Dictionary 5th Edition. Previous quandaries are online at They can be searched by topic.

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