It now looks certain that national curriculum tests for 600,000 11-year-olds will be cancelled in thousands of primary schools next week. This is regrettable. Whatever headteachers' and teachers' frustrations are with the present system of testing, a boycott – whereby children and parents in many schools will not know until nearly the last minute whether the tests would go ahead – is no way to go about seeking reforms to what is a flawed system for assessing youngsters and the performance of primary schools.
The response to the boycott call would appear to be patchy but – even on the most conservative of estimates – it looks as though about 4,000 primary schools will be boycotting the tests. Some estimates put the figure as high as 8,000. Even 4,000 out of 17,000 schools taking the tests is a sizeable enough number to make a mockery of any idea of producing primary school league tables next year. The real danger, though, is that – as the anger on both sides intensifies with the approach of the first day of testing on 10 May – the actual issue at the heart of the dispute will be ignored.
Too many schools spend too much time teaching the tests in the last year of primary schooling and this is narrowing the curriculum for the majority of primary schooling. Ninety children's authors and illustrators have signed a letter saying the rigid approach to learning adopted as a result of the tests has switched many children off reading. Their complaints ring true.
It is also true that the vast majority of secondary schools re-test all their pupils in maths and English when they start the autumn term because they believe the results of the national curriculum SATs to be flawed. This is because the coaching youngsters have received tends to mean their test scores give an inflated idea of their abilities in maths and English. By the time they arrive at secondary school, after a long summer holiday, their ability is often lower. And yet some form of assessment to monitor the progress of students leaving primary school is reasonable.
These are the difficult issues that need to be addressed. For teachers to refuse to administer the tests would solve nothing. Reasoned discussion between the National Association of Head Teachers and National Union of Teachers – the two unions that are boycotting the tests – and whoever is in government from today is the only sensible way forward.