Teachers' boycott gets court backing: Ministers face choice of changing the law or accepting that few schools will do tests

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The Independent Online
THE COURT of Appeal cleared the way for a general boycott of national curriculum tests this summer by ruling yesterday that teachers have a right to take action in protest against increased workload.

The Government must decide whether to change the law and force teachers to carry out the tests, or accept only a few schools will be doing them this summer, concentrating instead on reviewing the curriculum to make it more acceptable to teachers.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, celebrated the court's decision as 'another scorching victory'. It seems inevitable that members of the other big teacher unions - the National Union of Teachers and Association of Teachers and Lecturers - will back the boycott in their ballots.

The London borough of Wandsworth sought to persuade the court that the union's real motive was to challenge the Government's national curriculum and testing policy.

The three judges said it was 'quite clear that members of the union have criticisms to make about the national curriculum on education grounds'. But the union's ballot paper, and its campaigns since 1990, clearly focused on increased workload, and whether teachers have a contractual obligation to deliver the tests was not at issue.

Lord Justice Neill, with Lords Justices Steyn and Rose, ruled it was therefore a proper trade dispute within the 1922 Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act. Their ruling is final, because the judges refused leave to appeal further, and Wandsworth said it would not petition the House of Lords.

Mr de Gruchy urged ministers against trying to change the law: it would 'inflame an already explosive situation', he said. He wrote yesterday to John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, appealing for an urgent meeting to seek ways of reducing teachers' workload immediately.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, urged the Government to abandon this year's tests. But Mr Patten insisted they should go ahead. He refused to be drawn on whether the Government is preparing to rush legislation through Parliament to force teachers to carry out the tests, but placed heavy emphasis on the review he has ordered from Sir Ron Dearing, chairman of the curriculum and assessment authorities.

Speaking soon after the court's decision, to the Secondary Heads Association annual conference in Southport, Lancashire, Mr Patten said the ruling did not affect a head teacher's statutory duty to deliver the national curriculum, or teachers' contractual duty. That brought laughter from the heads, many of whom believe there is no prospect of tests in their schools.

Mr Patten said the court 'has not ruled on the merits of this summer's tests, nor on the desirability of industrial action'.

He added: 'Let us be clear that a boycott in whatever guise would be damaging. It would damage pupils whose weaknesses will go undiagnosed and untackled. It will damage parents who will be deprived of information about the performance of their own children. It will damage the evolution of the tests themselves, by denying Sir Ron Dearing important evidence he has asked for. It will certainly damage the public reputation of whatever profession is involved, and that could last a very long time.'

But heads and deputies applauded Frances Raval, deputy head of Morley Bruntcliffe School, Leeds, as she told Mr Patten: 'It is not helpful to threaten governing bodies and head teachers with punitive fines if they do not manage the unmanageable.'