Leading Article: Teachers in a cul-de-sac

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The Independent Online
THE FACT that all three of the mass teaching unions are heading for a boycott of all national curriculum tests is entirely understandable. Over the past five years the profession has been driven into implementing strenuous reforms in an atmosphere of often intense political hostility. While the pressure has been high, rewards have been comparatively low. Some teachers have been invigorated, but many have felt threatened and ignored. The frustration of that large latter group is now erupting.

Parents should view the present scene with dismay. This militancy delays or weakens the testing of pupil performance at all the important stages of schooling. Subsequent generations will lose out. When foreigners bring their children to Britain they are astonished to discover that, in many state schools, children undergo no regular standardised testing until they are 16 - at the very end of their compulsory school life, when it is too late to make any difference. John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, ought to explain to parents who support the boycott that they are blindly depriving themselves of objective information on their children's progress - information that parents in other countries rightly regard as a fundamental right.

The teachers' action is pointless because the Government has already accepted their central demand: that the curriculum and testing must be reviewed with the aim of reducing undue workload and bureaucracy. Mr Patten, in other words, is already listening and responding. Further confrontation can only exacerbate the teachers' sense of alienation while confusing parents and pupils. The action is also futile because the boycotts will make it more difficult for curriculum advisers to work out what is really wrong with the present set of tests. The boycott can only gratify the need among many teachers to thumb their collective nose at ministers.

Moreover, it is wrong to assume that an overwhelming majority of teachers reject the testing programme. After initial problems and legitimate complaints, tests for seven-year-olds are proceeding satisfactorily. Last year's trial tests in science and maths for 14-year-olds were regarded by most teachers who conducted them as useful. There were some criticisms about detail, and the tests have since been improved. The main problem this year was over English tests for 14-year-olds. On those, the Government gave way and agreed not to publish the results.

Teacher conferences over Easter are attended by activists. Parents can easily be misled into believing that they represent the views of all teachers. That is not the case. Although the NASUWT won a large majority for its boycott, many declined to vote. It is quite possible that nearly half the union's members are in two minds about the action. Mr Patten obviously hopes that the Court of Appeal will decide next week that the action is unlawful. It would be far better if members of the National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers voted against the boycott when they ballot in two weeks' time. They would earn respect for their restraint and avoid charging angrily down a cul-de-sac.