The National Curriculum Review: Unions divided over Dearing proposals: Teachers advised to mark summer tests, but boycott on continuous assessment not lifted

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The Independent Online
TWO of the three teacher unions that boycotted last summer's national tests seemed ready last night to make peace with the Government after ministers accepted recommendations to slim down the curriculum and tests.

The moderate Association of Teachers and Lecturers is advising members to mark this summer's tests, though it has not told members to lift their boycott of continuous assessment in the classroom.

Leaders of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers meet next week and may adopt a similar position. But the biggest union, the National Union of Teachers, said its boycott would continue - a majority of its members recently voted to carry on.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the situation was 'very messy' and his own members were divided. Many were unhappy about national testing of 7-year-olds and some opposed the new, simpler tests, which 14-year-olds will sit this summer.

However, Mr Hart welcomed Sir Ron Dearing's proposals with a few reservations. 'I hope the teaching profession can see a victory when it has one in its hands.'

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, which went to the High Court last year to secure the right to boycott, said: 'The national curriculum as proposed today is virtually unrecognisable from the Byzantine bureaucratic monster imposed by Kenneth Baker. However, there is still far too much assessment.'

Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said many teachers would feel that obstacles to the 1994 tests had been removed.

Doug McAvoy, NUT general secretary, said: 'The tests will continue to be used for school comparison and league table purposes - purposes to which we are fundamentally opposed. We continue to believe that the tests and statutory assessment cause additional and unnecessary work, are not supportive of learning and are of no value to parents.'

Professor Alan Smithers, of Manchester University, welcomed Sir Ron's proposals to allow pupils to pursue vocational courses from the age of 14, to bring Britain into line with countries on the Continent.

He said: 'On the Continent, where some pupils concentrate on vocational education, levels of general education are much higher than here. People who express fears about dividing children into sheep and goats are missing the point. Other countries use vocational courses as an incentive to learning for young people who aren't interested in academic work. If you are going to be a hairdresser, you need to know quite a lot of science.'

However, Martin McLean, lecturer in comparative education at the University of London Institute of Education, said Sir Ron's strategy was a risky one. Vocational courses had been undervalued throughout Europe: 'I think there are real dangers that these courses will become dumping grounds.'

Traditionalists who wanted a return to simple pencil and paper tests were also unhappy. Dr Sheila Lawlor, deputy director of the Centre for Policy Studies, said the decision to retain the 10-level scale, the source of much of the complexity in testing, was a mistake. A more radical reform was needed. 'There is not a lot of slimming down because, up to the age of 14, 75 per cent or 80 per cent of the curriculum will still be prescribed. On the Continent, children are not made to do the same things for 75 per cent of the time.'

The Institute of Physics is alarmed by the proposal that the amount of time 14- to 16-year-olds must spend on science has been reduced from 20 to 12 per cent. It has warned Sir Ron that the decision will reduce the number and quality of future scientists and technicians.

Leading article, page 17