SATs boycott - remember 1993?

14 Apr 2009

After the NUT's Easter conference, another SATs boycott threatens. How will it end? Well, those with long memories will recall that we have been here before. The precedents are not good for government. In 1993 a boycott of the school tests ended in victory for the teacher unions and ignominious defeat for the then Conservative Education Secretary, John Patten. It marked the beginning of the end of his career as a Cabinet minister. The government tried everything to prevent the boycott. It took out national newspaper adverts seeking parental support. It appealed to teachers over the heads of their leadership. It urged head teachers and governors to enforce the law. Finally, it tried to win over more moderate teachers by promising a review of testing, even pre-empting its conclusions by promising to slim down the tests in future years. There were even legal attempts to stop the boycott, right up to the Appeal Court. With the government supporting from the sidelines, the legal challenge was led by the Conservative-controlled Wandsworth Council, which tried to win an injunction to stop the NASUWT union from implementing the boycott in its area. Wandsworth failed and the boycott was declared to be legal.In the High Court judgement, Mr Justice Mantell ruled that the boycott was part of a legitimate trade dispute because it was "wholly or mainly about workload or working hours". The legal decision may have been different if Wandsworth had been challenging the NUT rather than the NASUWT. That is because the NASUWT always stressed that it was protesting about teachers' workload, not about the effect of testing on pupils. The NUT, also part of the 1993 boycott, seemed more strongly motivated by educational concerns. If, as seems possible, the 2010 boycott is tested in the courts, the NAHT and NUT may have to prove that they are motivated by the effects of the tests on head teachers and teachers.Otherwise it may not be considered a trade dispute. Ministers are hoping that the talk of a boycott is just another ritual, conference-season flurry of protest. If they are wrong - and the indications suggest they may be underestimating the strength of feeling, particularly amongst head teachers - they should remember what happened in 1993, when the boycott was almost total and the government suffered an ignominious defeat.

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