Tory-controlled Wandsworth council in south London yesterday served a writ on the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers seeking an injunction requiring the union to withdraw its boycott instruction. A judge in chambers will this morning decide whether to hear the case swiftly.
Edward Lister, Wandsworth's leader, said the council believed the boycott was unlawful because teachers are bound by the 1988 Education Reform Act to deliver the national curriculum and its associated tests. 'I see no reason why Wandsworth pupils should suffer as a result of the NASUWT's unlawful boycott,' he said.
Nigel de Gruchy, NASUWT general secretary, said the union had been advised by its lawyers that the dispute was lawful under the Labour and Trade Union Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, which allows employees to take action over terms and conditions being affected by decisions for which the Secretary of State is responsible. The union says national curriculum testing has placed an excessive workload on teachers and that ministers are wholly responsible.
John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, welcomed Wandworth's move. 'If we are to ensure that education standards continue to improve, we must have an accurate and reliable picture of what children are achieving. Only a system of regular tests can provide that.'
The case is likely to be heard next week. If the court finds in Wandsworth's favour, its judgment will open the way to challenges from other local authorities and governing bodies. If, however, the court decides the boycott is lawful, ministers will have to accept serious disruption to the tests.
Most NASUWT members are in secondary schools, so their action at present affects the preparation for science, maths, English and technology tests which are supposed to be given to all state school 14-year-olds in June.
Members of the National Union of Teachers, the largest teaching union, have voted in principle in favour of boycotting the English tests for 14- year-olds, but its leadership faces calls for a wider boycott at the union's annual conference at Easter. The union is expecting to conduct a ballot after Easter, with action soon after.
Leaders of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers may come under similar pressure at their conference the week before Easter.