Tomorrow the National Union of Teachers will debate whether teachers ought to boycott the government’s proposed ‘tests for 4-year olds’. But the NUT are missing a trick. Instead of pushing teachers into looking like work-shirkers, why not encourage parents to opt-out of the tests?
The opt-out strategy is currently being used, with reasonable success, across the US in response to a country-wide policy requiring students to sit various tests and have the results be reported to the state and federal government.
From the US government perspective, wanting to know pupil progress over time is not an unreasonable desire. How can you evaluate if children are progressing, or teachers are performing well, or taxpayer money is being spent effectively if you don’t have a ‘baseline’ figure from which to check progress? (And ongoing results to see how the cohort is improving?)
But the test opposers have been smart. Even if wanting data is sensible, tests make parents nervous. It’s their kids they are handing over – the thing they hold most precious. If you can make parents not want their kids to sit the tests, what the government wants pales into comparison.
So how did test-opposers make parents want to ‘opt-out’ of government tests?
First, they got organised. Facebook groups, twitter, and blogs were all used to create letters for parents to send to schools saying they were removing their child from exams. The OptOutOfStandardizedTest wiki is packed with this sort of info.
Second, they stoked concerns about data protection. Would a child’s score ever be leaked? Could it be used to deny them provisions? Could it be asked for many years later and used against them? (Sounds crazy, but there are examples of this kind of behaviour that makes me think it’s nowhere near as unlikely as we would think it to be in England).
Third, they repeated the use of the phrase ‘standardized’ tests and all the grungy ideas of ‘measuring children’ that comes with it. No one likes to think of their child being ‘standardized’. Mention the cattle-market, Brave New World-ness of it often enough and you can basically creep parents into opting-out.
Fourth, they played on nostalgia. “Remember when you were four/seven/ten and played in the sunshine for hours? Well your child will be locked inside revising”. Cue pics of exhausted children sleeping on textbooks while pristine swing sets sit abandoned. *sob*
Could this work in England?
Potentially. Even just going for a more straightforward line would likely do it: “Parents, if you don’t want your child to have to sit onerous tests that the government will record and keep on file about your child forever please send this letter”
After all, how are Conservative politicians going to argue that parents shouldn’t have such power? The whole premise of Conservativism is that the family should have as much autonomy as possible. With increasing awareness of Data Protection, plus recent outrages over the sale of NHS records and people’s tax information, it’s possible the records angle would have traction too.
Should the unions follow this line?
Ultimately, I don’t know if tests for four year-olds are a good idea. I’ve never really dealt with that age group. But what I do think is that parent opinion is more powerful, and likely more important, than teachers on this one. If they really don’t want this, it will be hard for the government to argue. If they don’t care, if they think “this would be quite useful”, then the teaching profession should probably let it go. The public pay our wages and send us their children. If they’re okay with their children doing the test, I’d likely trust their judgement.
Either way, though, if I was leading a union wanting to oppose the tests I’d absolutely be starting with parent boycotts before teacher ones. It’s easy to spin teachers as being lazy and difficult. But get the Parents’ Army onside, and politicians may well find themselves facing a group who are impossible to defeat.