Testing time for the Scottish Government

30th August 2018

by Carol Craig

This article was first published by Sceptical Scot on 20 August 2018.

After months of simmering opposition, the Scottish Government’s difficulty with P1 testing has now come to the boil.

Various stakeholders had expressed opposition to testing four- and five-year-olds – the EISConnect (formerly the Scottish Parent Teacher Council), as well as various children’s charities. In the past few months many individual parents, teachers and headteachers have also voiced their opposition.

Educational theorists as a whole don’t support the testing of young children, arguing that the data generated is worthless. Indeed the Scottish Government’s own international council of education advisors is not in favour of testing infants. Nonetheless, the Scottish Government has ploughed on with the tests, turning a deaf ear to its critics.

In the past week that approach became untenable. Upstart, a pressure group campaigning for a kindergarten phase in Scottish education, launched a ‘Play not Tests’ campaign to encourage parents to opt their children out of P1 tests. This launch, which included a two-minute video, generated considerable media coverage. The fact that the Scottish Government apparently can’t make up its mind on whether parents have the legal right to withdraw their child from the tests has further undermined its stance on P1 testing.

All this media attention has now made clear that there is no majority in the Scottish Parliament in favour of P1 testing. The Greens, Labour, and Lib Dems are all opposed. On Thursday the Scottish Conservative Party, usually a strong supporter of standardised assessment, came out against P1 testing. Party leader Ruth Davidson told The Herald that the tests should be scrapped ‘without delay’.

This matters hugely for the Government has no overall majority. Given the lack of support in the Scottish Parliament, and the fact that opposition parties see a way to embarrass the Government and stop a policy they don’t like, it looks inevitable that the P1 tests will be withdrawn.

High stakes politics

But how did the Scottish Government and the Education Minister in particular get into such an embarrassing position? Quite simply, they haven’t been listening and they think they know best. John Swinney maintains that the tests aren’t ‘high stakes’ so they shouldn’t pressurise young children. But many teachers and head teachers, who have been with four- and five- year-olds as they take the test, say otherwise. Obviously their opinions don’t count.

I am an Upstart trustee and one of the most persuasive arguments against P1 testing of literacy and numeracy is that it will skew the whole early years experience towards formal schooling. I have attended various meetings where professionals have talked about their experience of P1 testing. One primary school teacher reported that as one of the test questions was ‘how many Tuesdays are in a month?’ she now felt she had to teach her P1 class the calendar. Pre-school staff report that the pressure is on them now to prepare their three- to five-year-olds for literacy and numeracy testing in P1. This supports the argument that Sue Palmer, Upstart’s founder, continually makes that international evidence shows that tests of this type inevitably narrow the curriculum.

As yet I have never heard Swinney engage with this argument. He just keeps saying that the tests give teachers information on pupils’ progress and that the tests should be ‘fun’ and not stressful. It is as if he doesn’t understand the basic argument that P1 testing on literacy and numeracy will inevitably undermine play-based learning, not just for P1s but for those in nursery. And, of course, we must remember that Scotland has an exceptionally early school start date and children in P1 are often four years of age. Compare this with Scandinavian countries where they don’t even start formal schooling till children are seven. As Sue Palmer points out, Scottish children are being tested on literacy and numeracy when the overwhelming number of European children are not even at school.

So why is the Scottish Government so deaf to reason that it has got itself into trouble? The issue is not ‘high stakes testing’ but high stakes politics. In 2015 as Scotland’s educational attainment gap widened First Minister Nicola Sturgeon put her ‘neck on the line’ and said that she ‘wanted to be judged’ on narrowing that gap. Indeed, she said that making progress on educational attainment was now her government’s main priority. When the Scottish Government’s National Improvement Framework was revealed a few weeks later, testing was a key part of its strategy. To signal how important she views narrowing the attainment gap the First Minister moved Swinney, who had been a very successful Finance Secretary, to the post of Education Secretary.  And it made perfect sense to put someone who has a love of numbers in the post, given that standardised testing was now centre stage.

Making a difference

There is little doubt that Sturgeon’s commitment to narrowing the educational attainment gap is sincere and that she genuinely wants to make a real difference. Undoubtedly she was being courageous in putting her neck on the line. But asking people to judge her alone on tackling the attainment gap is not just macho but grandiose: it’s simply wrong for her to make out that improvement in educational attainment is so much in her gift as First Minister that she can be assessed on any progress. It isn’t in her gift and it isn’t that simple.

The SNP have been in power since 2007 and since educational attainment figures have continued to decline, it is easy to argue that the party is responsible. However, evidence suggests the reasons for the poor attainment figures are deep seated and predate the SNP’s time in office. The2007 OECD report into the quality of Scottish education questioned the Scots’ belief in the equality of opportunity afforded by our education system and highlighted the growing divide in the educational outcomes of students from different social classes. The authors wrote:

'Who you are in Scotland is far more important than the school you attend so far as achievement differences on international tests are concerned.'

Social class, the devastating effects of poverty and the expectations and values inherent in our education system and wider society play a major part in our educational attainment gap. The growing inequality in Scottish education reflects badly on Scottish society and institutions as a whole. How has the land of Robert Burns, with its proclaimed commitment to equality, allowed this to happen? Tackling the problem is not just about what you do in schools. This is a point that education professor Mark Priestley made to The Herald earlier in the year when it became clear that the Scottish Government’s success in narrowing the gap is at best ‘marginal’: 

'Poverty can be a disadvantage, and children who live in homes where there is unemployment, high levels of stress and complex problems will be more likely to struggle with their learning. The school is only a very small part of the lives of children and while schools can make a difference, often the issues which lead to poor attainment and poor performance in schools are linked to out of school factors. The language of the Scottish Government’s focus on closing the attainment gap can be unhelpful as it potentially narrows the discussion to a focus on national school qualifications.'

Cultural gap

The problems now inherent in Scottish education, both falling standards and the attainment gap, are cultural not just structural. Significant progress can only be made with real attempts to alleviate poverty and a genuine alliance of people and organisations across Scotland committed to significant change. This alliance needs to be aided by a Scottish Government which doesn’t think it has all the answers and is prepared to listen, genuinely consult and work hard to create an atmosphere where people think their contribution matters.

I joined Upstart as I believe that a kindergarten phase in Scottish education, whereby children don’t start formal schooling till they are six or seven, is part of the solution to a number of problems – loss of resilience, growing mental health problems in young people, lack of exercise and greater obesity, falling educational standards and a widening attainment gap. In 2016 Sue Palmer wrote an open letter to Swinney:

'When children start school at the age of four or five, those from disadvantaged backgrounds are on average thirteen months behind their luckier peers in terms of language and problem-solving skills. Yet we expect all children to achieve the same outcomes in literacy and numeracy. Not surprisingly, the disadvantaged kids fall behind, many lose heart, and despite the best efforts of their teachers, fail to thrive in our education system … and so the cycle of disadvantage continues.  … Please listen to Upstart’s arguments, Mr Swinney. We’re not suggesting that the introduction of a play-based kindergarten stage is a magic bullet. But we do have evidence that it could give all Scottish children – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds – a vastly improved chance of becoming successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors.'

If he had listened he might have been spared this week’s embarrassment as it became clear there is no tangible support for P1 testing.

Finnish model

Equally the best performing education systems are not those where children go to school early and are formally taught the 3Rs. And this is clear when we look at Finland. Finnish kids don’t start school till they are seven and don’t sit an exam until they are in their mid-teens yet the country is in the top ten of  the education international league table.

The ethos of Finnish schools is also very different from the UK’s – no school uniforms, endless play outdoors, and pupils taking lunch with teachers with whom they are on first name terms. The emphasis is on bringing the best out of every child and on equality. There is no streaming, setting or constant testing.

Finnish education is obliquity in action. As the Scottish Government’s policy of testing Scottish four- and five-year-olds starts to crumble in the face of public and political opposition, contemplating the notion of obliquity may help them to start listening and finding a way forward.

More information on Upstart can be found on the Upstart website.

See also the author’s From One Extreme to Another: Parenting in Scotland in a forthcoming book The Golden Mean: Fostering young people’s resilience, confidence and well-being, edited by Morag Kerr. The book also includes a chapter by Sue Palmer called  The Silence of the Weans.

About Carol Craig

Carol Craig is a trustee of Upstart. She is an author and series editor for Postcards from Scotland. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland’s ill health. She has written an article called From One Extreme to Another: Parenting in Scotland  in a forthcoming book The Golden Mean: Fostering young people’s resilience, confidence and well-being, edited by Morag Kerr. The book also includes a chapter by Sue Palmer called The Silence of the Weans.