In the war of words that will follow the vote by members of the National Union of Teachers and National Association of Head Teachers to boycott national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the two unions have highlighted a problem that needs a solution.
We will hear a lot in the coming weeks about how it is the head's statutory duty to administer the tests. We may even see an injunction being sought to stop the action. While it would preferable if the unions did not take industrial action to protest at the inadequacies of the testing regime, it has to be borne in mind that legal intervention will not solve the dilemma.
The fact is that the testing apparatus is not fit for purpose. Secondary schools have so little confidence in the tests taken by children in maths and English at primary school that they test them again when they arrive at secondary school. The reason is that they have little faith in the way children are taught in the final year of primary school. They believe that children are being drilled too much – or "taught to the test". And this is because schools are so desperate to achieve a good showing in primary league tables.
Various suggestions have been put forward to counter the problem. Conservative schools spokesman Michael Gove has suggested transferring the tests to the first term of secondary school to avoid the problem of primary school teachers teaching to the test. Schools Secretary Ed Balls has said that in future external tests could be replaced by teacher assessments if these assessments prove to be robust enough. There are pros and cons for both ideas but neither would offer an immediate solution to the problem.
We believe it is important that the tests should stay because they are the only measure of schools' effectiveness and pupils' abilities. They are useful to parents and they are the mechanism by which the education system is held to account. The national performance tables are, however, less necessary so long as parents have the right to information about the test results of any school they want to consider for their children – and the ability to compare those results with other schools.
That would remove the high stakes attached to the tests and the need for constant coaching to ensure children do all right in them. The tests would then give a truer indication of individual pupils' abilities.