By Patrick Yarker, Norwich and District NUT
2003 ended with a setback for teachers, parents and students campaigning to abolish the restrictive, unreliable and overly-stressful national testing system in English state schools.
The ballot by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) of Key Stage 1 and 2 teachers (essentially teachers in primary schools) saw a substantial majority in favour of boycotting the tests. However, the turnout failed to meet the union's requirement of 50% of those eligible to vote.
More than 30,000 teachers voted for action, with about 5,000 against, but only some 34% of the 103,000 eligible actually voted.
A higher proportion of eligible teachers voted against action this time than in the 1993 ballot of all teachers. Even so, a 34% return on a postal ballot is not a low turnout. This should strengthen the case of those on the NUT Executive who want the 50% requirement dropped. Turn-out at the recent Brent East by-election was 36%; Tony Woodley was elected General Secretary of the TGWU on a 21% turn-out, and the current leader of the ATL won by a tiny margin on a 16% turn-out.
30,000 teachers looking to act against SATs are entitled to know how similar results can be interpreted as a landslide in a by-election but a dead heat inside the NUT.
With the result coming at the very end of term, many teachers were left deflated and unable to respond quickly or to analyse what had happened. However, Linda Taaffe of the NUT Executive was quick to point out that the figure of 30,000 teachers at primary level ready to take action is encouraging, and would be augmented by significant numbers of English, Maths and Science teachers at Key Stage 3 (that is, at secondary level).
The NUT is meant to survey secondary teachers early in the new term to gauge reaction to the government's intention to use KS3 SAT scores to compile League Tables for students aged 14. That survey, and a subsequent ballot for action at Key Stage 3, should proceed, but the NUT leadership must rise to the challenge.
Adverts in the press and articles in the union's magazine pushing for a positive outcome in the Primary ballot were useful but not sufficient. Follow-up inside schools and associations was lacking in too many places. Contenders for the soon-to-be-vacant post of General Secretary addressed meetings on the issue around the country, but what picture did the turn-out at such meetings give?
The Norwich meeting was attended by fewer than 30 teachers, almost all of whom were union post-holders. The perspective given by John Bangs at this no doubt typical meeting was entirely one of full-time officials in the NUT and the DfEE meeting and talking together; there was nothing about the need for local mobilisation through demonstrations, newsletters or meetings for parents, students and governors as well as for teachers. (The only such meeting arranged in Norwich was put together by the anti-SATs Alliance.)
The broad mass of the NUT membership were seen as people to be written to, not organised by the leadership or by the existing structures within the union. Much more needed to be done to ensure the highest possible turnout, especially given the timing of the primary ballot at a point in the school year most remote from SATs.
Teachers, students and parents will only now be beginning to feel the full impact of SATs preparation and the pressure to coach students for the tests. Students again face the loss of creative elements of their education as SATs-practice steals the already-inadequate time given for art, drama, music and sport. Teachers face the insoluble problem of making dull, tedious test-questions divorced from genuine educational activity meaningful and interesting for our students. And parents and carers face the strains imposed on the family in the stressful lead-up to the exams in May.
As in the previous years of SATs, these exams ensure that children will become over-anxious, sleep-disordered, ill and in the worst cases suicidal. The reasons to replace SATs with an educationally-valuable framework of assessment remain as strong and urgent as ever. SATs work to widen the gap between high and low attaining students.
They enforce a narrow education on our children. They tell students, parents and teachers nothing helpful about the educational progress being made.
They waste money far better spent on staffing and resources: £30m on the tests last year while 1,000 teachers and 2,000 support-staff were made redundant.
SATs and League Tables are being phased out in Wales; they do not exist in Scotland or Northern Ireland. Students and teachers at English private schools don't have to endure them. SATs retain a stranglehold on English state education principally to give New Labour grounds to claim that "standards are rising". That such a claim is specious has been amply demonstrated inside and outside Parliament, but the government won't listen. "Tests, tables and targets are here to stay!" declares the Education Secretary, which is why only boycott-action can make a difference now.
All those concerned to see an end to SATs and a consequent genuine improvement in education for students should attend the next meeting of the Anti-SATs Alliance in London, which will discuss ways forward. Local anti-SATs Alliance meetings should then take place to re-vitalise the campaign. Teachers should continue to raise the issue in school and in their union branch: those who didn't vote this time around need their concerns addressed, and to be persuaded. NUT members should lobby their National Executive member and other local and regional officers to drop the 50% rule, to step up campaigning, to hold a KS3 survey and ballot and to organise a national demonstration against SATs. Anti-SATs stalls and public meetings should continue, for public opposition to the SATs will peak again as the exams draw nearer. Local union structures should be reviewed and strengthened. Momentum for another ballot after NUT Conference, at the height of the SATs season, must be built now.