News that the National Association of Head Teachers and the National Union of Teachers plan a boycott of the tests for 11 year-olds in English and Maths may be cause for immediate celebration on the part of some pupils and teachers. But it should worry the rest of us – and any teachers genuinely concerned with improving standards.
The unions say the tests require excessive workload and force teachers to drill pupils in English and Maths when they could be doing other things. Yet, independent experts found the tests to be ‘educationally beneficial’ while reminding teachers that they could teach the basics more effectively through good teaching rather than drilling for tests. Since there is still a 22 point gap between the achievements of poor and better off children, the boycott will have a disproportionate effect on the disadvantaged, those who were failed most by schools before the increase in accountability in the nineties that included testing and performance tables. National test data are vital in raising teacher expectations as well as revealing where primary schools need to improve.
It was interesting to note the lack of enthusiasm even among the unions’ own members for this boycott (which is opposed by other unions). Most members of both unions chose not to vote in the ballot, which meant that only a third of NAHT members and a quarter of NUT members actually voted in favour of this action. This may make it a lot harder to enforce the boycott.
Of course, there is room to reform the tests. But it is absurd to suggest that a single set of tests in English and Maths at the end of primary school – the only independent measure of primary schools – is excessive. Equally, at a time when we have seen the adverse effects of self-regulation in parliament and banking, it is untenable to suggest that teachers should mark themselves. Whatever happens, it is vital that whoever becomes education secretary after the election makes clear that testing is here to stay.