Teacher unions set to escalate row over testing

TEACHERS look set for their biggest confrontation with the Government since the pay disputes of the mid-Eighties, as the row over English tests for 14-year- olds threatens to spread across all tests this summer.

The six unions, which represent nearly all the 400,000 teachers in England and Wales, yesterday wrote a joint letter to John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, seeking an urgent meeting. They appealed to Mr Patten to scale down the tests by converting them into a national pilot. The trials of the tests had been poorly conducted and poorly administered, they said.

But the minister has rejected compromise, arguing that if he gives in over the English tests, union militants will attempt to derail national curriculum testing as a whole. Unions are united against the English tests, and head teachers are likely to support staff who take action on that limited issue.

The National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers intends to ballot on a boycott of all the national curriculum tests this summer, while left-wing National Union of Teachers leaders in London are also attempting to spread the campaign against English testing into an across-the-board boycott.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the NAS/UWT, said that 'the problems surrounding English testing at age 14, while particularly acute, apply equally to many other parts of the system for testing and assessment'. He argued that the central issue was the increased workload of administering tests.

However, the NAS/UWT move threatens to divide the unions, even though union leaders said yesterday that they would try to co-ordinate action. The NUT has won 91 per cent support among English teachers for a ballot on boycotting the secondary school English tests, and will consider balloting members on other tests. But other union leaders fear privately that a campaign against the entire testing regime will play into the Government's hands by losing the support of parents, governors and local authorities.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said that, while the profession agreed on challenging the English tests, he doubted that there was such a clear consensus against other tests.

The NAS/UWT and the NUT, which represent the mass of rank-and-file classroom teachers, both want the testing system converted into continuous assessment. Their conferences at Easter are likely to support a wider campaign against national curriculum testing. Ballots would be held in mid-May to support action in June.

That will put pressure on the other mass union, the more moderate Association of Teachers and Lecturers, to ballot on similar action. Peter Smith, the ATL general secretary, said yesterday that teachers felt that the Government was unwilling to listen to professional concern.

Parents and school governors from schools in Harrow, north London, will today deliver a protest over the English tests to Downing Street. Seven out of 10 parents of 14-year-old pupils in the area have written letters opposing them.