Page last updated at 16:37 GMT, Friday, 10 April 2009 17:37 UK

Legal dispute over Sats boycott

By Gary Eason
BBC News website education editor, at the NUT conference

'I've seen some people crying over it'

A proposed boycott of Sats tests by two of England's main education unions would be unlawful, the government says.

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) is due to debate a motion proposing a boycott of the 2010 tests at its annual conference on Saturday.

A similar proposal is due to be considered by the National Association of Head Teachers next month.

The government said head teachers had a statutory duty to administer the tests. The NUT said there was no legal issue.

The motions call for a ballot of members on a boycott of the statutory national curriculum tests at Key Stage 1 and 2 (ages seven and 11) "once all other reasonable avenues have been exhausted".

'Child abuse'

Speaking ahead of the NUT conference, the union's chief solicitor, Graham Clayton, said: "If there were any serious question about the lawfulness of action involving a boycott of Sats we wouldn't be proposing it."

And he said that even if there were, those minded to try to stop the union through the courts "can't gag... the feelings and protests of teachers about doing things in the course of their employment which they feel is bad for the children and the education service".

Sats for 11-year-olds are essential because they give an indication of a child's ability in the core subjects... they also highlight strengths and weaknesses within the primary school
Heather Morris, Shropshire

The union's outgoing president, Bill Greenshields, said he was confident a boycott would be successful.

"We will end this child abuse," he said.

But a spokesman for England's Department for Children, Schools and Families said the tests were essential to raising standards.

"They give parents and the public the information they need about the progress of every primary age child and every primary school," he said.

"Independent research shows they are valued by the clear majority of parents.

"The motion proposed by the NUT leadership calling for a boycott of next year's statutory tests is irresponsible, it is unlawful and it is out of touch with what parents and teachers want. They should think again."

He said head teachers had a statutory duty to administer the tests and teachers would be in breach of their contracts if they failed to comply with instructions to do so.

League tables

The NUT's chief complaints about the statutory tests involve what the acting general secretary, Christine Blower, called the "backwash effect" of children being tested only in English, maths and science.

This means a narrowing of the curriculum to the detriment of a more rounded education, the union argues.

We absolutely do want to talk to government
Christine Blower

This is compounded by what it regards as the invidious effect of publishing schools' results from the 11-year-olds' tests in "league tables".

Ms Blower said the whole debate might have been headed off by the report of the government's expert group on testing, which had been due in mid-February but has been postponed to May.

She said Schools Secretary Ed Balls had said "quite helpful" things about Sats "not being set in stone" - though there have been problems in the pilot versions of new single level tests which Mr Balls had held out as a possible replacement.

She added: "We absolutely do want to talk to government."

Welsh experience

The NUT annual conference is being held this year in Cardiff.

Sats were abolished in Wales between 2002 and 2005, though they were replaced by a skills test at the age of 10. Official tables of schools' performances were ended in 2001.

David Evans
Pressure is now off in Wales, says the NUT's David Evans

NUT Cymru secretary David Evans told BBC News that if parents really felt they needed to know how different schools were performing they could ask local authorities, which would have their own assessments.

He said prior to the abolition of league tables one of the major problems was that a school could suffer from a mere perception that it was not as good as another.

Mr Evans said his elder daughter, who is about to take her GCSEs, was among the year group who were the last to take Key Stage 2 Sats at the end of primary school.

When she did, parents and teachers alike felt under pressure, he said.

His younger daughter, now 11, was not having to do them.

"I wouldn't say she had a poorer education but she didn't have that pressure, she enjoyed school more.

"I don't think there has been any deterioration at all."

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