A joint boycott of Key Stage 2 SATS by the National Association of Head Teachers and the National Union of Teachers was organised in May. Although the boycott was patchy, it looks like it could have sunk the whole SATs scheme: the national league tables built on the basis of the SATs are now meaningless as they depend on near-100 per cent compliance.
The fact that the joint boycott went ahead in a considerable proportion of schools (in some areas a majority) in the face of large-scale Labour government intimidation and scurrilous threats by ministers was impressive. Ex-Education Secretary Ed Balls even called on school governors to dismiss boycotting heads, or conduct the tests themselves (which would have been illegal). Commitment, determination and courage were displayed in equal measure. The boycott was separate from, though running parallel to, the education unions’ general educational campaign against SATs, which has attracted strong public support from parents, governors, academics and authors.
The Key Stage 2 tests are taken by year 6 pupils at the end of primary school, and have become the principal tool behind the state’s league table mania. Key Stage 2 SATs are the crucial baseline for “judging” primary and secondary schools. So the mass boycott seriously undermines the efficacy of league tables and Ofsted’s ability to exploit them to damn schools in their draconian inspections.
Learning from the successful 1993 SATs boycott and mindful of the recent spate of state interventions in trade union disputes, the terms of the joint ballot that led to the action were related strictly to a trade dispute, specifically on one groups’ conditions – the “leadership group” of senior managers responsible for conducting the tests. However, everyone in education was aware of its significance for the profession’s ability to reassert control over the curriculum and assessment procedures, as well as its impact on undermining the league tables.
The two unions represent the vast majority of primary school leaders and classroom teachers and their cooperation on this issue is quite unprecedented, which bodes well for the future. The effect of the industrial action taken did not mean strike action, rather schools were open, children were taught and the 2010 tests ignored. In its own right the boycott though patchy has huge significance, particularly as it went ahead despite the distraction of the general election. It was another exemplary case of workers pressing their own vital agenda to improve their lot and that of their pupils.