Teachers angered by prospect of a 'return to O-levels': Staff are being asked to boycott the tests, which many say will kill pupils' enjoyment of English. Judith Judd reports

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FOR ENGLISH teachers, the new national tests for 14-year-olds are a threat to beliefs they have held for more than 20 years.

They see the tests as the latest in a series of battles waged by traditionalists against modern methods. Their unprecedented anger, which has led to calls for a test boycott, follows victories for the right in reducing the proportion of coursework at GCSE and in securing a review of the English national curriculum which is expected to lead to greater emphasis on spelling, grammar and handwriting.

Teachers argue that the tests with compulsory Shakespeare, a prescribed anthology and an emphasis on short, timed questions are a return to the days of O-level when pupils memorised and regurgitated facts for the examiner.

There will be no chance, they say, for pupils to show they have read widely, can redraft work after discussion with teachers and other pupils, or display sophisticated reading skills. In particular, they think compulsory texts will kill the enjoyment of literature they want to foster.

John Wilks, chair of the London Association for Teachers of English, which has written to every school in the country to canvass support for a boycott, said: 'The fear is that these tests will form the antithesis of what English teachers have been trying to do with their pupils, and that pupils will not be adequately prepared.'

John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, said the English tests for 14-year-olds had been subjected to rigorous trials for more than two years, and many teachers had been involved. 'This summer's English tests will be among the most scrupulous ever produced,' he said.

Teachers deny accusations that they are using educational arguments because they are nervous about scrutiny of their own and their pupils' performance when the results are published.

Philip O'Hear, head of Acland Burghley school in north London and a GCSE English examiner, said they simply believed that the tests would be unreliable. 'The argument is the same as the one for GCSE coursework. English teachers don't think a test of one- and-a-half hours is the best way to test creative writing.'

Only 32 schools which took part in last November's pilot exercise have seen the tests, but teachers feel they have enough information about the Government's aims to justify their alarm.

They worry that the anthology and compulsory texts will narrow the range of books that children read, and encourage them to read extracts rather than whole books.

Robin Wilson, head of Trinity School in Croydon, south London, and chair of the Headmasters' Conference of leading public schools, said teachers were against the idea of a prescribed literary canon or an anthology. 'We feel there are other books which are equally valid. We are worried about the political influence which can be exerted over the choice of books.'

Compulsory Shakespeare is equally controversial. First evidence about the nature of the tests suggests they will include word definitions and some multiple-choice questions. Mr Wilks said: 'You don't have to have every child in the country reading the same play to make judgements about their appreciation of Shakespeare.

'All the English teaching for 20 years or more has been based on the idea that you can judge and compare pupils' response using a wide range of different books. It happens at A-level. It happens at degree level. Why shouldn't it happen in school?'