Leading Article: Boycotts and other distractions

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The Independent Online
TEACHERS' FEELINGS about the national curriculum range across a wide spectrum. In virtually every English faculty, staff are seething with resentment - not only about tests, but also the proposed imposition of a more prescriptive curriculum. Many colleagues, however, have more mixed feelings: they harbour reservations about the content of their subject curriculum, or testing, but the details are not the main cause of their disaffection. The two points on which the overwhelming majority of teachers agree are that the introduction of the curriculum has placed a heavy extra burden on their time, and that their professional concerns have been casually disdained.

In those circumstances it would be folly for the Government to carry out its apparent intention to legislate, hurriedly rendering the boycott of tests illegal. The height of a dispute is the worst possible time to enact far-reaching laws. A law that was designed to win an immediate dispute would remain on the statute book to bedevil future disputes of quite different character. If ministers really want to bar any industrial action that prevents the carrying out of specific statutory duties, they should make their case in cooler times. Moreover, teacher union leaders are right to argue that the coercion of 400,000 reluctant professionals is no way to win the broad consent that is essential to the success of the national curriculum. Parents are bewildered enough, without having the national curriculum converted into an acrimonious battle about trade union rights.

Yesterday's Court of Appeal ruling is therefore a blessing, even for those who disapprove of the teachers' boycott. At least the law is now clear. Teachers do have a contractual duty to deliver the national curriculum and testing, but they are also at liberty to take action over workload. There can be little doubt that most classroom teachers will back the boycott in the two ballots still to be held. National testing for 14-year-olds this summer is more or less dead - although, as we report today, some maths, science and technology departments may carry out the tests, without reporting the results.

Ministers should certainly continue arguing against the boycott, and in favour of testing. They have to keep the national curriculum show on the road, because it is the best available vehicle for raising standards. Arriving at workable tests takes two or three years of practical experience, adapting the tests each year until they are clearly achieving what is required of them. We cannot afford to continue delaying indefinitely the day when parents have access to hard, nationally recognised testing results.

There are other powerful reasons for feeling dismayed at the prospect of a boycott. No body of professionals can expect to raise its public esteem by taking industrial action, and it should only ever do so in extremis. That argument applies to teachers in particular, because they are entrusted with creating the moral climate that will influence whole generations of young people. Teachers might ask themselves, when a truant retorts that he was only boycotting the lesson, whether they are willing to give the only honest answer: 'There is one law for you, and another for me.'

Nevertheless, instead of distracting themselves with the threat of employment legislation, ministers should concentrate their energies on digging out the root problems. The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers alleges that the form-filling and other preparation required by the national curriculum forces some teachers to work a 52-hour week. At its conference, members told horror stories of sitting up until 4am ticking boxes. It wants to solve the workload issue by fixing a 35-hour- a-week maximum, and deleting the clause in the teachers' national pay and conditions order that requires teachers to work extra time outside their present six-and-a-half-hour day on duties that are reasonably required of them by their headteacher.

Teachers must not be surprised when other professionals dismiss that solution as impractical. Lawyers, engineers, or trade union general secretaries, for that matter, naturally work through evenings and weekends when they have an urgent brief to deliver - and they have less holiday time during which to refuel and read around their subjects. The best available recent research into general teacher morale suggests that it is no worse than most other professions, and that problems are more often caused by frustrated personal ambition and poor school management than by excessive hours.

The proper way to reduce teachers' workload is to scale down the national curriculum, simplify its structure and design tests that can be administered swiftly, with minimum disruption to teaching. John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, has already accepted the need for a review to achieve those ends. He has, therefore, already conceded the teaching unions' central demand. Now, instead of escalating the row, he should privately accept the loss of this year's test results, and set about winning hearts and minds. To use an expression that will have some meaning for his Roman Catholic spirit, he must restore the national curriculum to a state of grace.