Too much testing of a parent's patience

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The Independent Online
AT THE weekend the National Union of Teachers brought education to the top of the political agenda again with a vengeance that most parents will not welcome. There are undoubtedly many thousands of excellent and committed teachers who voted in the NUT ballot or will loyally follow the outcome. Parents certainly understand the desperation the NUT feels about issues such as class size and under- resourcing. Indeed, most parents will be only too familiar with the need to stand at car boot sales, fetes and sponsored events to bring extra resources into their school. But what parents will not understand is the NUT's continued aversion to testing.

John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, said on Sunday that parents will be appalled to find that they are back to the problems of the Sixties. Possibly he meant the strikes of the Eighties. Those parents who, like myself, had a child in school in those years, will remember only too well the many problems that arose. Some children never recovered from the time missed in school and the loss of extra- curricular activities. Many parents never met their child's teacher all year, nor had a report on progress. Relationships between parents and teachers were at an all- time low.

It has taken a long time to mend bridges but finally, last year, parents and teachers stood together in support of children and their schools, against unacceptable testing and in support of the proposed boycott.

The Government, in the form of Mr Patten, maintains that the tests were being introduced for the benefit of parents, and at their request. This was not correct. The National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations has 11,000 schools in its membership. Even on a conservative estimate, we speak for 8 million to 9 million parents. Of course, some of these supported the tests, and were happy with the Secretary of State's proposals, but they were in a minority. The groundswell of concern from parents was that tests would impede learning and tell them nothing they did not already know. When the NCPTA, through the Electoral Reform Society, surveyed its members in May 1993, the resounding result was for testing to be abandoned.

In response to such huge public concern, Sir Ron Dearing swiftly produced recommendations to slim down the tests. Parents and many teachers alike were grateful: the Government has listened and moved, be it only slightly, towards heeding the wishes of parents, the suggestions of teachers and, most important, the good of children. The NCPTA believes that the streamlining of the tests is reason enough to support them going ahead this year.

So how will parents now react to the possibility of further disruption to their children's education? It is with great sadness and even a little irritation that they will have to face up to the consequences of the NUT's decision. Some may begin to question whether they are being told the full reasoning behind the continued boycott. If there is any doubt in their minds that this powerful union might be mixing up the matter of testing with politicking or internal union disputes, the support of many parents will be lost.

For our part, the NCPTA will give parents any advice and support it can. I would like to make one practical suggestion for parents as to what to do now: every school should hold a meeting of its governing body, parents' association officers, headteacher and senior management team. This group must decide on the best way forward for that school and their children. Every school is different, each is special in its own way. We hope the governors of each school will take the final responsibility for implementing the decision taken - be it to go ahead with the tests or to abandon them.

But let us also not forget what is at the bottom of this awful mess, and that is the question of league tables. Parents may not be education experts, but we are no fools; those who work with their child's school know whether it is succeeding. They trust and have confidence in their school and in its teachers. So I have a message for the Secretary of State, too. Of course, education must go forward and changes have to happen. We understand why the Government wishes to know how the schools are succeeding - as does every parent. But we want change to take place in partnership and with consultation. That approach, rather than making a political fuss of the weekend's events in Scarborough, is much more likely to help us through what may prove to be a difficult summer.

The writer is parent member and past chairman of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations.