At the NEU (National Education Union) Executive on 13 July, the decisive amendment, passed with just one vote against, proposed that the union consider formal ballots to boycott the tests in selected areas.
The consideration is to be in consultation with the branches, and for areas which achieved the required 40% yes vote of eligible members and those who were close to it.
The Executive report on the ballot had included some recommendations to take the campaign forward, but none had involved any further consideration of action to boycott.
An amendment from supporters of the Education Solidarity Network (ESN) argued for calling a special conference of primary members and branch secretaries in autumn to consider the ballot results in full and debate the options for action. It listed the main options as a national ballot counted in a way that allowed disaggregation, ballots in areas which reached the thresholds in the indicative ballot, or no ballot for action. Our amendment was heavily defeated.
ESN Executive members supported the successful amendment as well as our own.
A proper discussion with primary representatives and branches which kept all options on the table would have been preferable, but this outcome is better than many expected. It keeps the prospect of a selective boycott alive, though very far from certain.
Much of the information discussed at the Exec meeting was confidential, but the basic picture from the consultative ballot was fairly clear. 97% of the members who responded supported for the union’s campaign to abolish them the testing regime.
A clear majority also supported a boycott. But the turnout didn’t suggest that the draconian thresholds required by the anti-union laws would be met in a formal national ballot.
For action to be legal in schools the law imposes a double test. We are required to get a 50% turnout and to have 40% of all eligible members vote for the action. The ballot indicated that at least ten districts would meet those thresholds with another group close behind.
It was argued (by ESN) that the testing regime is very vulnerable to any significant boycott, reliant as it is on all schools completing the tests so that meaningful league tables can be produced.
It is a pity that the substantial positives in the ballot were not reflected in the Executive’s report and even less so in how it was presented at the 13 July meeting.
This was the highest turnout in any national ballot in either the NUT or ATL in over 20 years with one exception. The exception was the pensions ballot of 2011 which achieved a turnout just 1% higher. That was a ballot of all members, whereas this involved primary members only.
The turnout in secondary schools and sixth forms is always higher, and it is extremely unlikely that the primary turnout was even close to 40% in 2011. On the last three occasions when the NUT balloted only primary members, the turnout was well below the vote in this recent ballot.
From November 2018 to January this year the NEU ran a full national ballot on pay and funding for all members in all sectors. The ballot was open for over two months. The testing ballot was for primary members only and ran for just four weeks.
Every branch and every region saw a higher vote in this ballot. This campaign has galvanised and motivated union branches and activists. It has pushed testing higher up the union and political agenda, it has demonstrated the overwhelming support amongst school staff for ending high stakes testing, and turned many NEU branches out to their primary members. It is likely, in time, to have improved union organisation and rep density in primary schools.
The fight to achieve a meaningful boycott of the 2019-20 tests is not over. Activists will be working to build as far as possible on the limited opportunity opened up by the 13 July decision.