Third teaching union to ballot on tests boycott: Patten offer to defuse dispute fails as Tories claim unions are looking for confrontation

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TEACHERS stepped up their fight against the Government yesterday when a traditionally moderate union voted unanimously to ballot its members on a testing boycott.

Tory MPs believe the threat of industrial action by the teachers may be the start of a trial of strength with the Government.

The decision by delegates at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers annual meeting, in Cardiff, unites the three biggest teaching unions in opposition to the testing programme. The National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers has voted for a boycott and the National Union of Teachers has approved one in principle.

Disruption of tests for 14-year-olds in English, maths, science and technology is inevitable unless Wandsworth council succeeds in persuading the Court of Appeal that the boycott is illegal.

ATL leaders dropped their opposition to a boycott after delegates' anger about testing became clear and John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, when addressing the conference on Wednesday, failed to placate the assembly by promising a review of the curriculum and testing. The union last took industrial action in 1978, when Shirley Williams was Secretary of State for Education.

Peter Smith, the union's general secretary, told the conference that teachers' frustration meant that a ballot was irresistible. 'Mr Patten made a crucial mistake. He felt that what was at issue was the opportunism of a tiny number of militant, politically motivated teachers.' But he warned that industrial action would be bruising and probably protracted. 'It is critically important that parents understand the basis of our objections.'

Delegates demanded a ballot on 'limiting workload'. The motion avoided mentioning tests and was worded vaguely for legal reasons. The union's lawyers say that action against testing on professional grounds would not constitute a trade dispute and would be open to challenge in the courts. Next week, its action committee will decide the wording of ballot papers which will go out to 100,000 teachers later this month.

However, if the Court of Appeal reverses the High Court decision that the NASUWT boycott is a trade dispute in a fortnight's time, the ballot is unlikely to go ahead.

Outside the conference, Mr Smith said the teaching unions must talk to each other about the action so that the effect on pupils could be minimised.

He warned Mr Patten not to rely on the outcome of the Wandsworth case. 'It is not good for children for these things to be solved by industrial action or High Court action. If the court rules for Wandsworth and if we don't ballot you will still have half a million disgruntled teachers, the very teachers the Government needs to be committed to the national curriculum.'

Mr Patten said in a statement: 'The vote to ballot is not a vote to boycott. The members of ATL will now have their say. I made it clear in my speech that the Government is very much alive to the concerns of serving teachers.' He said a boycott would devalue the curriculum and parents would not be able to find out how their children were doing.

Some senior Tory backbench MPs believe the unions are preparing to 'take on' Mr Major in a way they have not done since the miners were defeated by Baroness Thatcher.

'I think we are beginning to see a concerted campaign. We have seen the two railway unions, the miners and now we have the teachers all seeking to take industrial action,' one leading Tory backbencher said.

The threat of industrial action on three fronts is unlikely to dismay Mr Major. It could help to reunite the Tory Party after the divisions over Maastricht and pit closures.

James Pawsey, chairman of the education committee of Tory MPs, said the only call he had received from his backbenchers yesterday was in favour of going ahead with the tests.