Page last updated at 08:58 GMT, Thursday, 22 April 2010 09:58 UK

Q&A: Sats boycott

girl doing test
Members of the NAHT and NUT are taking part in the ballot

Some primary school heads in England are pitting themselves against the next government in a boycott of this year's Sats - but the situation is far from clear.

More than half a million 10 and 11 year olds are preparing to take the tests in the week beginning May 10.

We answer some of the key questions thrown up by this dispute.

What have the heads said they will do?

They say they will "not administer" this year's Sats - maths and English tests due to take place in England's primary schools between May 10 and 13.

Recently, the unions involved said this would mean that the heads would simply not open the test paper packets.

Does this involve just head teachers?

No, the action involves heads and deputies who are members of either the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) or of the National Union of Teachers.

Rank and file classroom teachers were not ballotted.

Will my children take the tests?

This will depend on their school and several factors: Is the head a member of one of the two unions involved? Are the deputies? Another main teaching union, the NASUWT, is not taking part in the action.

Even if a head is an NAHT or NUT member, he or she might decide not to take the action. The unions have said that the action will not be mandatory, but "enabling", meaning members would be within their rights not to boycott the tests.

Won't the government try to stop this?

Officials at the Department for Children Schools and Families have been examining various options for trying to stop the boycott with legal action.

It is understood their lawyers are weighing up whether the government or local authorities - where they are teachers' employers - would be best-placed to take legal action if necessary.

In foundation and voluntary-aided schools, the governing body is technically the employer.

Ministers say this action is illegal - are they right?

They say the boycott would be unlawful, but the unions insist it would be part of a lawful trade dispute. The unions stress this is not a strike, but industrial action.

The government cites section 87(3) of the Education Act 2002 (establishment of the National Curriculum for England by order) which gives the secretary of state power to make orders specifying attainment targets, programmes of study and assessment arrangements in relation to the key stages.

The power to make orders includes power to "confer or impose functions on" (amongst other people) head teachers.

The question of the legality of the boycott will probably only be answered by the courts if the dispute ends up there.

What about the school governors - won't they step in?

The boycott is very "problematic" for schools, the National Governors' Association says and risks damaging relationships between heads and governors and heads and their staff.

This is because there could be a situation where a head is following the boycott but deputies are not, or vice versa.

Governors cannot get involved in operational matters - those are down to the head and the school staff - and so are not allowed to get involved in running the tests.

On its website, the association tells members: "The governing body can reasonably enquire of the head teacher (assuming your head teacher is a member of the NAHT/NUT) what action they will be taking and what steps are in place to administer/manage the tests.

"The governing body cannot force the tests to be carried out, and should not try to do so, but it may remind the head teacher of the government's view of the boycott's legalities."

What have the unions got against the tests?

Both the NAHT and the NUT say Sats are "bad for children and bad for education". They say the tests narrow the curriculum because teachers have to focus so much on reading, writing and maths - the subjects tested - and cause unnecessary stress for children and teachers alike.

Most of all, they dislike the league tables drawn up from the results, which they say undermine the work of heads and teachers and do not give a true reflection of a school.

What about the league tables?

The league tables are drawn up by media organisations from the results released by the government, not by the government itself.

If a large number of schools do not enter children for the tests, local comparisons would not be meaningful.

This year, for the first time, the government has said it would publish teachers' assessments of children's work alongside the Sats results.

What do the political parties say?

They are all against the boycott. Ministers say the tests help drive up standards and that the publication of results gives parents vital information on progress made by their children and schools. However, they say the tests are not "set in stone".

The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats both say they would keep Sats but refine them. The Liberal Democrats would "scale back" the tests they say, with more internal teacher assessment and external checks to guarantee quality and consistency.

The Conservatives say the tests need to be "reformed but not scrapped".

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