Leading Article: We need urgent talks on the SATs boycott
Thursday 13 May 2010
By now, the boycott of this year's curriculum tests for 11-year-olds (SATs) is almost over. It has been a bizarre piece of industrial action with no government to negotiate with in the run-up to the boycott, no one to call in the two unions behind the boycott, the National Union of Teachers and National Association of Head Teachers, to see if a deal could be sorted out. There was also no will on anybody's part to test the legality of the union's action – only guidance from the Department for Children, Schools and Families saying there was a strong case for thinking it was not a legitimate dispute, because it was the statutory duty of the head to deliver the tests. As one observer put it: "So there's a strong case for legal injunction in a land where no employer has failed to get an injunction against industrial action by a union for months – yet we won't take it." That is bizarre, again.
Assessing the support for the boycott this week has been difficult. The most authoritative poll of local authorities indicated only 15 per cent of their schools would be boycotting the tests. However, only 60 per cent had told their councils what they intended to do. Civil servants privately reckoned that between 25 and 30 per cent of schools – up to 5,000 – would be taking part while the unions believed the figure would be about 50 per cent. Regardless of this confusion, even the most conservative of estimates would make next year's primary school league tables a nonsense, because around 4,000 schools' results would be absent. Therefore a settlement of the dispute must be a top priority for a new government, not least because, as the NUT's general secretary Christine Blower said at the weekend, there could be a re-run of the boycott next year if it is not sorted out by then.
Almost everyone is agreed the present system has its faults, so there should be no difficulty in setting up an independent review of the SATs. With the review of the primary school curriculum by former Ofsted inspector Sir Jim Rose being jettisoned by MPs in the dying moments of the last government, there is a good case for launching a fresh review that can take evidence from all parties on the way ahead. At least now the boycott is out of the way we can move away from bellicose posturing – like the call from Mr Balls to send boycotting heads home – and concentrate on the issue central to the dispute, whether the tests are the best way to assess performance.
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