Heads react to decision not to boycott Sats

 Warwick Mansell

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

What are the feelings in schools over the decision by the NAHT’s national council not to boycott Sats tests for a second year in 2011?

If the reception the move received at a meeting of heads which I addressed on Friday is anything to go by, there is a lot of anguish, and anger, out there.

The meeting, for heads in a London borough, was a regular chance to discuss issues of current interest. I was there to talk about the evidence on testing and accountability, but the heads were keener after I spoke to discuss the union’s move to go ahead with the tests in 2011.

As an aside, this is the second time in the last few months I have come away from a meeting struck by the strength and depth of feeling among heads against the current test-driven accountability regime – the first was at NAHT’s annual conference itself – and I would challenge any defender of hyper-accountability to spend some time at such events and still be of the opinion that there is nothing to these views beyond professional self-interest.

Anyway, as readers no doubt know, the NAHT’s council overwhelmingly voted 10 days ago not to repeat last year’s boycott, as Michael Gove, the Education secretary, announced details of a review of Sats testing. Next year’s tests will be unaffected by the review.

At the London meeting, one head, who boycotted the tests in May, spoke first. She said: “I am feeling totally let down by the NAHT. Last summer, I put my head on the line for something I felt very strongly about. Ofsted criticised me for not having done the Sats. This is the first opportunity we have had for decades to say what we feel strongly about, and now it’s gone.”

A second head said that more of his colleagues were committed locally to boycotting the tests this year, and expressed his feeling in strong terms that no attempt had been made to measure the feeling of heads towards supporting a further boycott before the decision was taken.

He said: “I think the commitment to take this further forward was there. I think it’s appalling that the NAHT did not measure that. We were looking at a 100 per cent boycott [in this borough] next year. I’m very disappointed with the NAHT, and considering my membership as a result.”

Another spoke of “great disappointment”. “Sometimes you have to do something because it is the right thing to do.”

Another spoke of the unfairness of a testing system which, she said, could put great pressure on schools to get children to come in to sit the assessments even if they were not in the right frame of mind to take the tests. The school had had a pupil who was unwell last year, while another had just experienced a bereavement. Yet if they had not taken the tests, they would be counted as failing them and the school’s results would suffer by nine percentage points. The often unjustified pressures, then, on schools as a result were “horrific”.

It was argued on several occasions that, where schools had boycotted the tests, there had been no protests from parents, while it seemed that heads had also not found their pay docked, despite warnings at the time. A couple had, though, had a tough time at the hands of their governing bodies.

The meeting also saw several speakers analysing the content of Mr Gove’s letter to Russell Hobby, the NAHT’s general secretary, in which he outlined the terms of the review. In my speech I had also analysed the letter, along similar lines as my blog a few days ago on this subject. The heads who spoke were not convinced the letter provided evidence the government was really about to change its position and listen to the profession on high-stakes testing.

There were also comments that the momentum behind the NAHT’s campaigning on this issue – the boycott having followed several years of building the intellectual case against the current test-based accountability apparatus – had now been lost. 

If there were any dissenters to the sense of bewilderment and frustration at the decision, they were not heard at this meeting, although one head seemed to argue that the deeper problem was that the union had never fully recognised that teacher assessment arrangements being proposed as an alternative to testing would still create problems for schools if the results it generated were then published in league tables.

As I understand it, there were several factors behind the NAHT’s decision. As Mr Hobby told the TES last week, elements within the coalition government are known to be strongly in favour of testing and league tables, and the worry in the union was that continuing with the action might make it more likely that the government’s position would harden. This way, it is clearly felt, there is a chance to influence change with the government.

There have also been concerns about a possible legal challenge. This did not happen in the spring, but the timing may have helped with that, with the politicians’ minds on the general election which took place just before Sats week. A Conservative-led government may have had even fewer qualms than Labour about trying to quash a boycott through the courts, it was thought.

Of course, the union’s decision on Sats cannot be considered in isolation from other issues. Part of the calculation will inevitably have been that a confrontational approach here would have removed its ability to wield influence over ministers over other aspects of the education agenda. Having been outside the “social partnership” arrangements between unions and the Labour government for a period, only to return, the union must be conscious of the dangers of being left out in the cold

These are reasonable points, and I am certainly no union strategist. But I do wonder if the power balance between the government and head teachers is quite as one-sided, in favour of the government, as these calculations might suggest.

I cannot see that many schools that boycotted the tests in May would not have done so again, given that frankly the world did not end for those which refused to run the tests in the conventional way, with pupils and parents still receiving information on their child’s overall level of performance.

Would more schools have joined in in 2011? Of course, it is impossible to know, but I’d hazard a guess that some would have observed what happened this year and jumped this time. Some will also say that the precedent set in May meant that heads would have had time to prepare for the boycott by not preparing for the tests with their children this time (one of the reasons widely cited in favour of doing the Sats even by those who hate the system), although one source who boycotted the tests this year was scathing of this view, arguing that it was clear throughout last academic year that the NAHT was likely to push for the boycott. Therefore, it was argued, heads had no reason not to boycott them this year.

This source argued firmly that those complaining about the NAHT’s decision now who did not boycott the tests this year really had no case: they should have supported the boycott this year and therefore put the union in a stronger position.

Nevertheless, I think a government faced with a boycott of more than the 26 per cent of schools which took part in the action this year – with, say, even a third to half of heads avoiding administering the tests – would have had a serious problem on its hands. Head teachers are hardly seen by the general public, I would venture, as the most militant of people.

But we will now never know how ministers would have reacted to this pressure. As I say, if the reaction in this room was representative of the country as a whole, there is a great deal of disappointment in many English primary schools now.

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