Fighting the testing regime, transforming our union

The news of the first National Education Union conference voting to organise a boycott of SATs tests has inspired many thousands in the labour movement and way beyond. Lewisham NEU activist and conference delegate Jade Baker (pictured above, speaking to the conference on the boycott motion) explains the background and looks at the issues for children’s education and wellbeing, for the school system, for the transformation of teacher trade unionism and for Labour.

(For Clarion/Free Our Unions campaigning at the NEU conference on the anti-union laws, see here.)

In 2016, the government-led restyling of primary school Standardised Attainment Tests (SATs) shone further light on just how arbitrary, inappropriate and educationally flawed these assessments are. In response to this, myself and other Lewisham National Union of Teachers (now National Education Union – NEU) activists, supported by the grassroots campaign Education Solidarity Network (ESN), moved a motion at national policy conference to ballot all primary members seeking a boycott of all high stakes, summative testing which has become pervasive in our schools from Reception to Year 6.

This ballot would facilitate the boycott of: Reception baseline testing; the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check; the Year 2 SATs; the Year 4 Multiplication Tables Check, the Year 6 SATs; and bought-in formalised tests that are increasingly used to assess the progress of children throughout primary school and are usually administered on a termly or half-termly basis (these are in reading, maths arithmetic and reasoning, spelling, punctuation and grammar).

It was argued at the time that there would not be an ideological argument to win in pursuit of the boycott as there was, and still is, a cross-societal consensus that these tests damage children and their education. Not only do they limit curriculum coverage in class with most weight given to the teaching of English and Maths through an ever increasing pressure for teachers to ‘teach to the test’, but they have also been cited as a key factor in the increasingly poor mental health of children, with one in eight children suffering according to National Office of Statistics 2017 research. It is a common complaint of many teachers that during the ever-increasing formalised assessment weeks – in many schools up to once every half term – there is a spike in disruptive behaviour with children ‘acting out’ in frustration with the most vulnerable brought to anger or tears and many others feeling demoralised and complaining about the tests.

Personally, I have witnessed all this over my six years of teaching too and have experienced complaints from parents who believe their child’s confidence has dwindled under the pressure, exacerbated by senior leaders who have repeatedly told children that their marks are not good enough. These formalised tests can take up to a whole week’s worth of morning teaching with children often not finishing them due to an inappropriate amount of questions – sometimes they do not even cover what has been taught in that term!

Even more absurd is that often, if the test results are not favourable, teachers are encouraged to use teacher assessment which is how progress was historically measured. It must be remembered that we still trained and perfectly capable to still do! The negative impact of these tests effects teachers too, with an increase in workload and much of the progress data produced from these assessments linked to their performance related pay.

The line we took when moving our motion in 2016 was one of pressing urgency to pass this policy, as at the time the new government Education Adoption Act gave the DfE sweeping powers to force schools in “underperforming” local authorities to convert to academy status, linking possible poor SATs results to the forced academisation (a form of privatisation) of our schools.

We argued that for the first time in decades it looked as if there would be enthusiasm to boycott SATs in a number of quarters. Headteachers were against them as poor results with the new, considerably more challenging assessments could at that time lead to academisation. Teachers – many of them young who had experienced nothing but SATs themselves – had discovered how arbitrary standardised testing is with the government’s flippant attitude to their inappropriate transformation. A cross-party Education Select Committee of MPs and even the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) had both publicly voiced opposition against the testing regime as it limits the curriculum and causes stress. Finally parents through different campaigns were gearing up to boycott the SATs themselves by removing their children from them for that week. The time to boycott was ripe…

However, the meat of our motion to ballot for a boycott of high stakes testing was gutted by an Executive Emergency Motion from the leadership which was voted for by conference. This argued that the union’s focus should be on the upcoming strike to protect teachers’ terms and conditions with the new Conservative policy of blanket academisation of all our schools by 2022 and cuts to funding. Rather than conduct a ballot to boycott, it instead insisted to indicatively ballot primary members to test their reception to the idea. We believed this approach was wrong and that a campaign to boycott primary testing would actually galvanise primary members and strengthen the union’s strike.

Over the next year, moreover, there was no indicative ballot of primary members.

In 2017, Lewisham Association took a similar motion to conference and once again, had it cynically scuppered by members of our “left wing” union’s Executive Committee. It specifically instructed that the ballot to boycott should be of all high stakes, summative testing, as these formalised tests do not only take place in the Year 2 and 6 SATs – that in fact numerous national and formalised assessments pervade each primary school year. This time the Executive used a semantic line by seemingly, deliberately misinterpreting the wording of our motion.

In what can only be described as unbelievably bizarre twist of events, members who usually forcibly vociferate from the podium against our schools becoming ‘Exam Factories’, argued in favour of testing! Phillipa Harvey, the then President of the NEU, spoke against claiming that we cannot stipulate that teachers do not use tests. However, that is not what we were arguing for in the motion, we made clear that teachers should be able to use whatever forms of formative assessment they see appropriate and fit to measure the progress of children but that this should be left to their professional decision and extracted from the accountability system which determines the stressful atmosphere associated with testing.

A half-way-house amendment was moved and supported that called for an indicative ballot of primary members to determine support for a boycott of primary testing. Once again, over the next year, there was no indicative ballot of primary members.

This takes us to last year, 2018, when Lewisham Association (now District) brought the motion back to conference again, assuring it answered previous criticism clearly. Before undergoing Groundhog Day for the third time, we asked ourselves what argument the Executive would use against the motion this time and they did not disappoint! Members including Alex Kenny, Secretary of Tower Hamlets and City Association and interlocutor of the General Secretary Kevin Cortney, argued that tactically the union should focus its efforts on defeating the upcoming Reception Baseline Assessment in 2019/20 and that it would in turn bring the downfall of SATs! A daft line of argument, as he seemed to forget that the Baseline, already rolled out in 2015 and dropped in 2016, was now being brought back by government in a more formalised and inappropriate form. So not only was the union’s initial campaign against the Baseline beyond ineffective, it had not spurred the demise of SATs in any way.

For the third time, an amendment was moved and supported that called for an indicative ballot of all primary members to determine support for a boycott of primary testing. You guessed it: once again, over the next year, there was no indicative ballot of all primary members!

This forwards us to this year, at the 2019 founding conference of the new NUT and ATL amalgamated, NEU. It has been a conference of around 1,500 from a union that currently represents 450,000 education workers.

Encouragingly, conference has shown signs of a real determination to fight against the opposition of the “left-wing but do-nothing” leadership. Fears that the legacy ATL members would move conference to the right seem unfounded, and maybe even the contrary, as they seem to have been less factionally loyal and more willing to listen to debate.

When moving our motion for the fourth time, we have finally won the major and hard-fought for victory of a ballot of all primary members, for a boycott of all high-stakes summative testing in primary.

But once again, the Executive attempted to move a gutting amendment arguing to focus the union’s efforts on the campaign against Baseline, which fell heavily. Significantly, it didn’t call for an indicative ballot to boycott testing and clearly laid out that they believed this strategy was wrong. Maybe this would have had more weight with conference delegates if they had actually followed the strategies laid out over the past three years and actually conducted a ballot of all primary members?

After four years of our persistent argument and the executive failing to carry out policy, conference finally took note of all this and voted with us. A second amendment tried to water down the main motion again calling for a members’ survey before a ballot, but after four years of these sort of equivocations being passed, that was voted down too.

Having lost all the weakening and wrecking amendments the leadership disgracefully attempted to vote down the main motion. The initial vote was close and Kiri Tunks, part of the leadership faction and chairing as joint president, called for a re-vote indicating she would probably take a digital vote (replacing old card votes which record all the votes delegates hold). However, after the re-vote she called the motion lost. The conference descended into uproar with the floor refusing to accept Tunks’s ruling.

In the end, she allowed a digi-vote and the motion passed 56.13% and 43.87%. The struggle to achieve this has had a transformative effect on the mood of conference. Left activists now have a spring in their step and the leadership group are on the back foot for the first time in years.

Beyond conference however, we need to pressurise the leadership to follow through with the ballot, particularly in light of Jeremy Corbyn’s policy pledge to abolish all SATs and Baseline testing during his keynote speech to conference. Tellingly, evident in the Executive’s amendment to our motion this year is a willingness to leave the question of SATS to “major political parties for a review of the current testing regime and to ending SATs”.

Although Corbyn’s pledge was a massively positive step, waiting for a Labour Government is not a strategy to win and we must argue this vigorously as this could well be used as an argument to back out of of the boycott at any time. In addition to this, it would not be unforeseeable that Labour could renege on this position as the policy has not been won by members democratically (therefore making the leadership accountable to the policy) but behind closed doors through negotiations with union leaders. It cannot be doubted however, that members’ dogged plight to take up the issue of testing through the union played a role in pushing the leadership to raise this issue with Labour.

We now have a huge but heartening task to undertake as education activists, needing to mobilise for a positive result in an indicative ballot of all primary NEU members over the boycott, which will commence in the upcoming Summer Term. If we build in our own areas and hold the leadership of our union to account, making sure they put full effort into the ballot campaign, we have a fantastic opportunity to win and boycott all high stakes, summative testing in our primary schools.

This has been a brilliant victory for grassroots activists in the NEU against a resistant union leadership – we hope our story will inspire others to keep up the fight in their own union battles too!

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