20 Jan When parents choose to boycott
Debra Kidd is a former English and Drama teacher and co-founder of Northern Rocks. She is the author of Teaching: Notes from the Frontline and Becoming Mobius. You can follow Debra on Twitter at @DebraKidd.
When I wrote a blog post outlining my intention to boycott the SATs tests, I had a message from a former teacher telling me a story about how, in her school, a couple of parents had requested that their children be released from SATs. The governors had refused permission and the parents, not knowing that they could challenge this in other ways, complied. With the growth of parental pressure groups taking a stand against the SATs (such as More Than a Score), these requests are likely not only to become more common, but parents are more likely to be equipped with better information.
Questions for governors
So where should governors stand on such matters – and what should they do?
While I have decided to boycott, I believe that it’s a deeply personal choice and that each family must make up their own minds. I haven’t tried to pressurise my friends or siblings to join me in their own boycotts. That would be wrong. Similarly, while many heads and governors may have sympathy with a parent who wishes to boycott, they cannot and must not encourage it. They must remain respectful and neutral in the matter and ideally, they should not become embroiled in a battle with an already stressed family.
Governors are likely to express the following concerns:
- What will Ofsted say and how will a withdrawal affect us?
- Why would parents want to boycott?
- Could this spread and become a wider problem for our school?
- How do we manage requests for boycotts?
In a tweet on the 13th January 2016, Sean Harford, National Director for Schools Inspection at Ofsted, clarified that schools would not be held accountable for the non attendance of children whose parents had chosen to boycott the SATs. It will not affect their Ofsted rating. He was clear, however, that they must not be seen to be actively encouraging a boycott. They must remain professional and neutral:
@debrakidd HTs would not be held accountable for this.
— Sean Harford (@HarfordSean) January 13, 2017
@debrakidd But HTs clearly should not encourage parents to do so Debra.
— Sean Harford (@HarfordSean) January 13, 2017
The DfE states that headteachers must administer the tests. This seems simple but it is complicated. Heads cannot force a child to take a test. They cannot force them to write. They can only ensure that the test is administered to those children present. There are many cases of heads insisting that parents bring in sick children to school on the day of the tests. This is clearly madness and fuels the fire of perception that schools are enemies of families.
While there is information on what to do if a child is sick, there is nothing about parents who choose to boycott. This leads many schools to believe that they can simply administer the test whenever they like during the two week window (see below). There is not a code for children who have refused to sit the test and so the results will impact on data. This may impact on league tables though not, if Ofsted are to be believed, on gradings for schools. It may skew the overall outcomes in terms of floor targets – again this is very unclear. What is clear is that it makes for a messier data picture which will need explaining. It is for this reason – the impact on data – that many heads are concerned about children missing tests.
Parents who want to boycott the tests will have thought long and hard about it. It is not an easy decision and they will, more than likely, have done their homework. They will, of course, have spoken to other parents and it may well be that others are waiting with interest to see what will happen. Alienating and angering parents is never a good idea. Word spreads quickly and a bad reputation is hard to fix. Your head should talk to the parent in a balanced and reasonable way. They should not try to emotionally blackmail them. They should not say:
“If your child doesn’t do the tests, (s)he is letting her teacher and the school down.”
Parents do not have a duty of care to schools. Emotional blackmail is a cowardly way to deal with a complex issue. The tests should be for the child, not for the teacher. Of course, we all know the reality.
“If your child doesn’t do the tests, (s)he will be put in bottom sets in secondary school.”
This frightens many parents out of boycotting and it is untrue. If the child arrives at secondary school without SATs results, the school will assess them and place them accordingly. Many do this anyway as they don’t trust the SATs results. Lying to parents is not acceptable.
Instead, the head needs to find out why the parent wishes to boycott. If the parent is concerned about the narrowing of the curriculum and the amount of practice papers being sat, then these are valid concerns. They must be taken seriously. Every school has a legal duty to provide a broad and balanced curriculum – not to offer this is to break the law. Parents have a right to report this to Ofsted. Please talk to your headteachers about the way the timetable is organised in Yr 6. Children should have their full range of subjects and this should be evidenced.
In many ways, the more parents who boycott, the better for the school – small anomalies are hard to deal with. Larger protests will mean that a conversation needs to be had with the LA/MAT and DfE so that the data is contextualised.
Responses to requests
The temptation may be to deal with requests on a case by case basis, but it is better to have a standard policy in order to ensure that there is equity and no charge of favouritism or selection. For example some schools have been happier to facilitate the request of a parent with a child not meeting expected standard, than one flying high. This is unacceptable. Here are your choices:
You can agree to allow the parent to remove their child for the test.
This is the least stressful option all round. It is not really fair to expect the school to take care of the child on the day of the test when their teacher is administering to the rest of the class, but the absence will be recorded as unauthorized and only for the days of the tests themselves.
You can refuse permission and the parent can decide to boycott anyway.
In which case:-
They can take the child off roll with the LA and put them back on again when the tests are over.
This is bureaucratic and cumbersome for both parent and school, but it means the data won’t appear on the school’s records. Many parents won’t take this option because they fear their child won’t be allowed back in and will miss the chance to end 7 years of education with their friends.
They can take their child out of school for two weeks during the SATs window and face the possibility of a fine.
Many parents cannot afford this option but they consider it because they think that the school can administer the test at any point during the two weeks. This is a contentious issue and if they are well informed they will know that they can:
Take the child out for unauthorized absences on the test days and ensure that the school knows that the child will have access to the internet and to other children during the period.
A school cannot legally administer the tests to any child who may have already spoken with children who sat it or who may have seen information on the internet. A school must declare this in their entries. It is why there is a statement on the template letter offered to parents thinking of boycotts that their child will access the internet and peer group during this time and why the letter should also be copied to the DfE.
It is easy in these days of high stakes accountability, to forget the needs of a child in all of this. The chances are that a parent has made this decision because they think it is in the best interests of their child. In some ways, removing the pressure of the test from a child, simply replaces it with another pressure. Many children say they want to sit the tests even when their parents don’t want them to. They state:-
- I don’t want to be different
- I don’t want to let my teacher down
- It’s not fair on my classmates
- I’ve done lots of preparation, I might as well sit them
Whatever the outcomes of these conversations, there is no doubt that a child who is boycotting tests will be worried. Governors, heads and teachers have a clear duty to ensure that the child is not coerced or put under any kind of negative pressure in response to their family’s decision. Such pressure would be an abdication of duty of care and – one might argue – potentially a safeguarding issue.
It’s tempting to see parental pressure, particularly when it comes to issues like SATs, as a threat, but I’d really urge governors to see this as an opportunity. The fact that accountability is impacting on teacher workload is undeniable and it is teacher workload that is leading to our recruitment crisis. In addition, spurious changes to data outcomes can lead to heads and schools having their reputations destroyed almost overnight. Most teachers, heads and governors carry on, doing their best, trying to secure the best outcomes they can, even though they can see the cracks in the system.
Governors are altruistic people, giving up their time for the good of others. It may well be, that in your battle to create the best education in your school for children, parents who see these cracks and who are prepared to make a stand, are powerful allies. While you cannot encourage children not to sit the tests, giving safe passage to parents making this stand may well lead to the kinds of changes that would make the system better in the end. It’s worth thinking about.