Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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The Quandary - 13 May 2010

Will my union’s decision to boycott this year’s SATS tests undermine our professional authority?

Hillary's Advice

I must be honest. My reaction to this question comes filtered through some unhappy memories of teacher strikes and protests back in the 1980s. There was the day at Highbury Corner Magistrates Court when a group of Socialist Worker teachers, objecting to a feature I had written in The Times Educational Supplement, rammed me against a wall, spat in my face and told me they knew where I lived. And there were all the many days when my son was unable to go to primary school because of teacher strikes.

That half-a-decade of teacher unrest left a long legacy of damage. Children’s education was harmed, schools took years to rebuild their full range of programmes, and public respect for teachers never quite recovered.

So my reaction to your question about whether, as you put it, teacher strikes and boycotts “make us look like factory workers” is, quite simply, yes. In fact I ‘d go further and say that there is a direct link between what happened in the 1980s, and what is happening now because one result of those years of industrial action was to edge teacher unions out of national debates about education policy so that the teachers’ view of things like the national curriculum and external testing has never been properly heard.

Which is why we have this summer’s proposed boycott of the Key Stage 2 tests. Although only a minority of school heads voted for this, the vast majority of heads and teachers believe these tests are of no value to children and distort the primary school curriculum. They say they cause stress and anxiety, and exist mainly so schools can be ranked in league tables and politicians can ‘prove’ that standards are improving. I, and a great many parents, agree.

But the boycott has been ill-timed. Children, already primed for the test, will want to take it. And, more seriously, it puts at risk all the respect for heads and teachers that has been so painfully rebuilt. Teachers badly need to be respected and listened to, but this will only happen if they behave like the professionals they are.