Testing of 7-year-olds rejected by parents: Most support boycott and want this year's tests abandoned, survey shows

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The Independent Online
----------------------------------------------------------------- Do you think children should be tested at seven? YES. . . . 35% No. . . . .64% -----------------------------------------------------------------

MOST parents with children of school age believe the Government should abandon this year's national curriculum tests, and two thirds think that tests for seven-year-olds should be scrapped altogether.

A poll of parental opinion, carried out by NOP for the Independent, confirms that ministers have failed to persuade parents in favour of their testing policy.

All the parents interviewed had children aged between 5 and 16. Just over half said they supported the teachers' boycott of the tests scheduled for this summer term, while only 27 per cent actively opposed the boycott: the remainder were undecided or uncommitted.

The launch of a pounds 750,000 government campaign to promote the tests last week appeared to achieve little. Only 31 per cent thought that ministers should press ahead with this year's tests, against 62 per cent who thought they should be dropped.

The poll will increase the pressure on John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, and on the Government generally, after the Tories' defeat at the Newbury by-election and losses in last Thursday's local elections.

However, Mr Patten told the Independent yesterday that he is determined to press on. 'Every independent analysis of Britain's post-war problems has pointed the finger at education, and the need to improve standards. It's going to be a very long haul to catch up with our international competitors.' The only comfort he can draw from the poll is that there is overwhelming support among parents for the principle of testing 11 and 14-year-olds, with 85 and 82 per cent respectively in favour.

The biggest shock is that 64 per cent of parents do not think seven- year-olds should be tested at all. Tests for seven-year-olds in English, maths and science are in their third year, and ministers assumed that they had settled down and become acceptable.

However, parents are even more suspicious of the Government's plans to publish school-by-school test results in 'league tables': 70 per cent believe such tables would be misleading, against 27 per cent supporting their publication.

And they register profound distrust of ministers' preferred approach to testing. Only 3 per cent want their children's progress to be measured entirely by government-set tests. Exactly half said they would prefer their children to be tested wholly through continuous assessment carried out by teachers, with 46 per cent wanting a mixture of Government-set tests and teacher assessment.

A large minority of parents (44 per cent) would prefer tests to be limited to the 'core' subjects of English, maths and science, with barely half (49 per cent) wanting all 10 national curriculum subjects to be tested.

The National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations decided on Saturday to ballot the parents of pupils at its 10,000 affiliated schools on support for a parent boycott of tests - the kind of campaign that derailed the Government's policy in Scotland.

The National Union of Teachers is expected to join the other two large teacher unions in their boycott when the results of its ballot are released on Thursday. Doug McAvoy, the union's general secretary, said yesterday: 'After this poll, the Government can no longer claim it has parental support for its testing and assessment regime. Mr Patten should abandon this year's tests, to allow a system to be developed which supports teaching and learning, and commands the respect of parents and teachers.'

Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, whose members began boycotting the tests last week, said: 'The consumers have spoken. The Government really has to go back to the drawing board after this very clear message. It cannot be dismissed as coming from the education establishment. It is a vested interest: the vested interest of parents in their own children.' Mr Patten, however, said that Britain, unlike its international competitors, had only had a national curriculum for a few years, 'and testing is critical to judging whether things really are improving'. He said: 'It would be a tragedy for the country if the whole process were to be brought juddering to a halt, just when the independent education inspectors are saying that the new tests so recently introduced are producing results.'

Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, was unaware of the poll result yesterday when he told BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend: 'The public do want a curriculum that has some content back in. They do want the testing of it. The snag is that individual parents, faced with the teachers at their own children's schools getting increasingly excited about their unwillingness to take part in a testing programme, get very disturbed and very worried.'

The Independent's poll findings are supported by a survey of the general population, published today, conducted by Gallup for the Daily Telegraph. It found that 62 per cent of voters think the tests are too time- consuming and complicated, and 77 per cent think the Government's education reforms have been introduced too quickly. Only 19 per cent thought Mr Patten was doing a good job.