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Teachers beset by weariness and frustration: The school tests boycott ruling is hailed by a union leader as a 'scorching victory'. Diana Hinds looks at the dispute's effect

ON THE first day of the summer term, when told to get on with his technology project, a smart 14-year-old put up his hand and said: 'But Miss, I thought we weren't doing them any more.'

The teacher responded firmly that no, this was not the case: the class should carry on as normal. But the boy's question was entirely to be expected. At the large comprehensive near Croydon in south London, the mood among teachers this week was one of uncertainty - about whether or not they will all boycott the Government's tests this term - and weariness and frustration at the piles of extra paperwork the Government reforms have forced on them.

The headmaster of the school (anonymous because heads and governing bodies are legally obliged to implement testing while teachers are not) had sympathy for his teachers, who he said were in a very difficult situation. 'But we do have a statutory duty. That means that if teachers do boycott the tests, the governors might find themselves forced into taking disciplinary action against them.'

The school's staff divides almost equally between the three big unions. With the National Union of Teachers and the moderate Association of Teachers and Lecturers still to ballot on whether to boycott this year's tests, alongside the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, the headmaster is waiting to decide on a course of action. Meanwhile, the departments in the school are already discussing how they should proceed.

In the English department, for instance, the teachers are so exasperated by the Government's tests for 14-year-olds and the chaotic way in which they have been introduced that the department head is considering setting her own tests instead. But in technology and science, where work towards the tests is well under way, teachers said that they intended to conduct the tests as planned, but in some cases would refuse to send the Government the results.

'We will use the Government tests, mark them and report to parents - but we won't submit the results to the Government,' Chris Jones, deputy head of science and an NASUWT member, said. Mrs Jones, like the other NASUWT members in her department, supports the boycott and is critical of the form of the science tests, but said the union had advised teachers to use the tests if it would make more work for them not to.

Gwen Lawton, a science teacher and NASUWT member, said: 'We have decided that marking a test is better than not taking a test, because that is what we have been telling the children. It would be a betrayal of them to say, no, you're not taking it.'

She said the test helped motivate pupils to learn the work. 'We've been telling them they've got to learn all the work, and it's this preparation that is so important.'

The head of technology, a member of the ATL who chose to remain anonymous, opposed a boycott. 'Personally, I am not in favour of boycotting these tests: we are well into them now, and we'll lose credibility with the children if we don't see them through. We have spent much of this year preparing the work, and it would be a waste to call a halt now.'

Even if the ATL votes for a boycott, the union respects individual members who choose not to take industrial action. The head of technology seemed unsure exactly what other teachers in her department, who belong to other unions, might do, but she said she was 'quite positive' that they would all continue with the tests.

In general, the teachers did not object to the idea of a national curriculum, with associated testing, as a way of measuring children's progress, and some said they found the curriculum guidelines helpful.

But all of them had strong criticisms about either the form of the tests, or the vagueness of 'statements of attainment' in the curriculum - which involved a great deal of extra work deciphering what was meant.

(Photograph omitted)