Patrick Murphy (personal capacity)
The NEU Executive met on July 13th to consider the full detailed results of the recent indicative ballot on high stakes primary testing. Much of the information discussed was confidential but the basic picture was fairly clear. Opposition to the testing regime and support for the Union's campaign to abolish them was overwhelming. 97% of the members who responded agreed with that position. 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 not only to get a 50% turnout but to have 40% of all eligible members to vote for the action. The ballot did indicate that at least 10 districts would meet those thresholds with another group close behind.
The Executive report on the ballot included some recommendations to take the campaign forward but none of them involved any further consideration of action to boycott. An amendment to that report 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. This amendment was heavily defeated.
A further amendment proposed that the Union consider, in consultation with the branches, holding formal ballots to boycott the tests in those areas which achieved the required 40% yes vote of eligible members and those who were close to it. This amendment was overwhelmingly carried (with just one vote against). ESN Executive members supported this amendment as well as our own.
While a proper discussion with primary representatives and branches which kept all options on the table would have been preferable, this outcome is better than many expected. It keeps the possibility of a selective boycott alive though very far from certain. 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, however, 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 July 13th 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 at, or 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 4 weeks. As well as a much better national turnout, every branch and every region saw a higher vote in this ballot. That is a testimony to the extent to which this campaign 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 and activists will be working to build as far as possible on the limited opportunity opened up by the July 13th decision. That could also be used to take the lessons of the ballot and build a stronger base for a national ballot beyond this year.