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Leading article: It would be irresponsible of heads to boycott Sats tests

An impasse looms – but transparency serves both parents and pupils well

It is a measure of the Government's general discomfort that it has fallen out so spectacularly with the teaching profession, not so long ago a natural ally of New Labour and of Tony Blair, with his celebrated rallying cry of "education, education, education".

But after 94 per cent of head teachers voted at their conference at the weekend to back a boycott of tests for seven- to 11-year-olds, the National Association of Head Teachers, in company with the NUT, have placed themselves on collision course with the Schools Secretary Ed Balls.

Whether Mr Balls will still be there to handle an eventual crisis over Standard Assessment Tests next summer is far from clear, however. As the country may have had an election by then, it is conceivable that the Tory schools spokesman Michael Gove will be the person wrestling with the consequences of a teacher's boycott.

The two sides meanwhile are becoming locked into their respective positions, with teachers railing against the alleged "tyranny" of the Sats and the Schools Secretary repeating his mantra that scrapping assessment of primary schools would be wrong, and parents would not approve. While heads have many grievances against Sats, and charge that too much time is given over to "teaching to the tests" to the exclusion of arts and sports, Mr Balls – already on the defensive as regards the teachers unions – must not abandon the principle of transparency. In other words, the rights that parents now enjoy to inspect the results of primary schools and contrast them with other schools a round the country must not be removed or diluted.

Mr Balls, however, is already sounding uncertain, suggesting that assessment of schools through Sats should be replaced by Report Cards. These, he says, would paint a broader, fairer picture of schools by including information on pupils' background. Fair enough, but in the end results are what count and no replacement for Sats must subvert that essential point.

Another idea, which is to retain Sats but abolish the national league tables, though often presented as an honourable compromise, ought to be treated with considerable reserve. Its sponsor, another teaching union, the NASUWT, is noteworthy in the dispute over Sats as being far less opposed to primary tests than the NUT or the heads' association. But this is attributable at least partly to the fact that most of its members work in secondary schools and thus are uninvolved in the business of teaching pupils to prepare for Sats.

Meanwhile, the proposal to retain the tests and scrap the tables would deny parents the most crucial tool at their disposal when it comes to making use of the data gleaned from the Sats. The real thrust of this proposal, and that of many others, seems to be to bury information, put it beyond reach, or render it so confusing as to be unintelligible .

The fact is that Sats, since their introduction in 1995, have been scaled back at the request of teachers' unions. Heads, meanwhile, possess many means at their disposal to influence and shape the debate about primary testing. They should beware of being seeing as an imitator of the militant NUT.

Head teachers need to work towards a way out of the current impasse on testing. If matters go as far as a boycott, that can only bring discredit on them, and may well be seen as a wrong-headed attempt to take away parents' right to know crucial facts about the schools to which they are sending their children.