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The Scottish Conservatives are very pleased to bring this debate to Parliament, because we believe that it is of crucial educational importance. I am sure that that view is shared by every political party in the chamber. Indeed, I believe that we could all be accused of irresponsibility if we did not acknowledge and listen to the arguments that are being put to us by many in the world of education.
I want to be up front about our position on this matter, but before I do so, I welcome the fact that the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills said at the weekend that he wanted a “fact-based debate”. I also welcome the comments that the First Minister made at last week’s First Minister’s question time, when she told Willie Rennie that educational concerns about this issue should take precedence over politics. That is what many teachers are hoping for this afternoon. We intend to examine the educational arguments in detail.
Is the member aware that currently 29 councils across Scotland carry out P1 assessments? Will she call today for those councils to halt the assessments, or will she stand accused of breathtaking hypocrisy by doing exactly what she just talked about— engaging in cheap political point scoring?
I am very well aware of exactly what councils are saying just now. In some of those very same councils, teachers are speaking out loud and clear about their concerns.
Let me be crystal clear about our position and restate our commitment to rigorous standardised tests in P4, P7 and secondary 3, as a crucial part of improving educational attainment and measuring progress in our schools.
I know that some parties disagree with standardised assessments generally, but we support the Scottish National Party’s arguments about why they are important in terms of education and accountability. In our view, in drawing his conclusions, John Swinney was absolutely right to look at the trends in the recent programme for international student assessment—PISA—results and the comment in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s report from three years ago, both of which were consistent with the 2014 Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy. There was undoubtedly a very strong argument for delivering better standardised assessment. Mr Swinney is correct to say that it has been too easy for some schools and local authorities to be less than wholly accountable for their educational performance. It was right to introduce standardisation that provides better accountability.
Let me be unequivocal. We said in our manifesto in 2016 that primary 1 testing was part of that and we should not have argued otherwise. However, it is also a matter of public record that, during the intervening two years, we have on several occasions said in Parliament and in the media that we have misgivings about primary 1 tests in a way that we do not have about P4, P7 and S3 tests.
“The Scottish Conservatives have never been in favour of formal standardised national tests in Primary 1”.
Does she recognise why some of us feel that the Conservatives are deceiving us on the issue?
I recognise that we made a mistake about primary 1. I just say to the SNP that this, coming from a party that in two programmes for government—in 2016 and 2017—hammered home that there would be an education reform bill, is a bit rich.
Let me come to the evidence, because that is important. I particularly want to speak about the kindergarten model, which is used in many European countries, several of which do not have children start formal education until age seven. The model was established by Friedrich Froebel and was used as the foundation of infant teacher training in Scotland for a long time—a time when Scotland was the envy of the world for what it delivered in both primary and secondary education.
Just as important, that philosophy is wholly in line with the principles of the early years of the curriculum for excellence. Just like the curriculum for excellence, the Froebel model takes a holistic view of every child as an individual. Froebel believed that children should be nurtured as part of their family and community and that success in education came about through strong links between home and school. The infant classroom was based around structured play and learning through discovery and gifts, as Froebel described them, such as counting blocks—latterly, Cuisenaire rods—coloured balls, sand or whatever materials children used to discover.
Froebel did not ask infant teachers to make use of standardised tests or assessments. Instead, he asked them to be skilled in their professional judgments and well informed, through daily observation of each child, which would then be discussed with each family. Everything about that observation was done to inform and improve teaching. Froebel believed that testing at such a young age could prove unhelpful and, more important, that quality information about the child’s progress could be gained by more meaningful approaches.
I will not do so at the moment, if the member does not mind.
In my teacher training years, I remember exactly the same debate taking place among primary teachers. Therefore, in refining my thoughts prior to leading this debate, I looked carefully at the primary 1 tests, at the curriculum for excellence in the early years, and at what Scotland has done in the past. I have to say that the curriculum for excellence in the early years is relatively free of the controversy that has bedevilled the later stages, which was laid bare at the Education and Skills Committee this morning.
I spoke to a lot of people who have done the Froebel training, to find out whether there are concerns that the absence of formal testing means that too many children with problems are not identified. Only a few said yes, that was possible; the majority said that their specialist training enabled them to pick up problems more quickly.
A former teacher, who had been head of an infant department, told me that the best way to decide the answer to the whole question of whether to test in P1 is to look at the historical trends in standards in the middle and final primary years, because if the Froebel system had not been delivering, basic standards in literacy and numeracy in P4 and P7 would have suffered. They did not suffer. Indeed, Scotland had a really strong set of results—and that was irrespective of social background.
At this stage in today’s debate, it is important to recognise that current concerns about the standardised tests are largely concentrated on the primary 1 age group. Some critics, with whom I profoundly disagree, believe that the other standardised tests are wrong, but it is primary 1 on which the focus has fallen. We should be asking ourselves why that is.
Thank you, Mr Stevenson. Yes, I am aware of that.
The same debate is happening in England, Wales and many other places—it is not unique to Scotland.
I would like to share a few thoughts from a primary teacher who wrote to me earlier this week. She told me that she was worried about this debate on primary 1 tests, and about the fact that some politicians may be misrepresenting our position. An experienced teacher of primary 1 and primary 2, she asked me to look at the debate from the point of view of the best interests of the child. She said:
“There have been some good questions in the new tests but there are others which have undoubtedly created problems and which, as a result, have been the catalyst for the current complaints. In some of the questions the language used is not making use of the phonetic alphabet with which children are familiar and they are using names which were very hard to read. Some questions are too long, taking up too much time, and there is overemphasis on data handling within each assessment, for which I can’t really understand the purpose.”
She went on to say that that had led to much discussion in her staff room, ending up with many teachers feeling that there had been insufficient training about how many teachers would be able to participate in the tests and how to interpret them, and that there was too much pressure to complete the assessments in a hurry, which I do not think was the Scottish Government’s intention. All that seemed to be very time consuming and not altogether clear on how teachers will use the tests to inform their teaching, which is very important.
Does Liz Smith not accept that the issues that she recounts from a primary schoolteacher, which are entirely reasonable, should lead us to the conclusion that we should monitor and consider the contents of the assessments, rather than halt them as her motion proposes?
No. Scottish Conservatives disagree with that. Given the evidence that has been piling up over the past two years, we consider that the time has come to call a halt, reconsider the evidence that is very much before us and evaluate the best way of progressing primary 1 pupils.
Let me come to the concerns from other education professionals. The cabinet secretary knows that, initially, his economic advisers were included in that group. Again, there are some mixed views, and it would be wrong to suggest otherwise. However, there is a common theme coming through what they are saying—whether it be Sue Ellis, Lindsay Paterson or Sue Palmer, all of whom I greatly respect in this debate. They have differing views, but in each case they make one fundamental point: the issue is not just about their being able to measure outcomes but that any form of assessment or test must be meaningful. The Scottish Government must ensure that all teachers who use the test feel entirely comfortable with what they are being asked to do. On that last point, it is very clear to me that many primary 1 teachers currently do not feel at all comfortable, which is why this debate is so important.
“If we need to look ... again and reflect on the feedback to make sure the guidance is appropriate for the process then we will do that to guarantee young people have the type of educational experience we want them to have.”
I believe that that was a recognition that there were some serious issues to be addressed. The cabinet secretary knows, I think, that that is what many teachers want him to do. He knows, too, that the advice provided about the P1 tests—including what the rights of parents are—has been confused and muddled; that point was made by Lindsay Paterson in his article last week.
The Conservatives have been accused of being interested in nothing other than political opportunism and jumping on a bandwagon. If that were true, it would not be possible to find on the record comment from me and several of my colleagues, on several occasions in the course of the past two years, questioning the educational value of primary 1 testing. As a party, we continue to have such misgivings, and we are listening to what is being said by those who are being asked to deliver the tests. That is why I am proposing this motion, which asks the Scottish Government to stop and think, and to halt the primary 1 tests so that we can reconsider the facts that are before us and the whole approach to evaluating pupil progress in primary 1.
That the Parliament believes that good-quality pupil assessment is an essential component of the drive to raise educational standards in Scotland's schools, but notes the level of concern that has been raised by teachers and other education professionals regarding the introduction and delivery of new testing arrangements for Primary 1 (P1) pupils; considers that this concern questions whether the new P1 tests are in line with the play-based learning philosophy of early years provision in the curriculum for excellence, and, in light of this concern, calls on the Scottish Government to halt the tests in P1 and to reconsider the evidence and the whole approach to evaluating the progress of P1 pupils.
When we make decisions about the future of our children’s education, it is important that we have available to us dispassionate expert opinion to help us to make the correct choices. I have listened with great care to the words that Liz Smith has shared with us today. I say with the degree of respect that Liz Smith knows I have for her, that I do not consider that we have heard in the debate so far the marshalling of expert opinion that she claims.
In 2015, the Scottish Government invited the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to review Scottish education. In its report “Improving Schools in Scotland: An OECD Perspective”, it said:
“The light sampling of literacy and numeracy at the national level has not provided sufficient evidence for other stakeholders to use in their own evaluative activities or for national agencies to identify with confidence the areas of strength”.
The report also states:
“There needs to be a more robust evidence base available right across the system, especially about learning outcomes and progress.”
That reference to “progress” is crucial. It is precisely what the national improvement framework and national standardised assessments seek to do.
I am just marshalling the issue. [
.] We sought external independent opinion, which said that we did not have enough information about learning outcomes and progress, so we have put in place the standardised assessments. [
.] How we assess their effectiveness is by asking our education advisers in Education Scotland to ensure that each level of the assessments is compatible with each level of curriculum for excellence, and consistent with the benchmarks that have been signed off by chief inspector of education and the chief examiner, in order to make sure that young people are properly equipped, with the ability and the platform to progress in our education system. [
The president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland made the point, in the letter that she authored with my officials to directors of education, that assessment is an essential part of a good education system and is an integral part of effective teaching and learning. She said:
“A key principle of Scotland’s education system is that assessment is for learning. Assessment allows teachers to understand children and young people’s progress and to plan the next phase of their learning and teaching. Assessment is, therefore, a key tool to inform teachers’ professional judgment of the needs of the children and young people they are teaching. ... The Scottish Government and the Association of Directors of Education, therefore, see the assessments as an integral part of everyday learning for children and young people in P1, P4, P7 and S3, delivered as part of the education authority’s duty to provide education.”
The “professional judgment” of teachers—Liz Smith made this point—is at the heart of the framework and the standardised assessments that we have put forward, and the assessments provide a consistent tool to inform those judgments.
Teachers have been using assessments for years to confirm their judgment of children’s progress. The vast majority—29 out of 32 local authorities—were using some form of standardised assessment before the national scheme was introduced. Crucially, the majority were assessing P1 children not just once, but twice during the year.
When Mr Swinney made a statement a couple of weeks ago, I asked him whether he knew how many of those local authorities had replaced the previously used diagnostic assessments with the new SNSAs.
East Renfrewshire, for example, is a long-established assessment authority. It wants consistency between the SNSA and the historical model that it has been using, in order to ensure that it has consistency in its educational information. I consider that to be a perfectly reasonable transition position for a local authority to take, but not a long-term position.
There is nothing new about assessments for P1 children. Local authorities, led over the years by the Scottish National Party, Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberals, have all taken assessment approaches, and nobody has objected.
There are sound educational reasons for that, the key one being that it is absolutely vital to get as much information as possible on children’s achievement as early as possible. Professor Sue Ellis, who was quoted by Liz Smith, said:
“We know that there is a big difference in children’s attainment when they start school and that difference grows and gets wider as children move through the school system, so we do need some way of tracking that and checking it”.
When it comes to raising standards across the board, which is what we all want, what evidence does the cabinet secretary have to support his approach? With regard to international measurements, many of the countries that are doing exceptionally well on educational standards do not start measuring until children are seven. Does the fact that they are doing better than Scotland not prove a point?
The key point here goes back to the quotation from the OECD that I read out at the beginning of my speech. Essentially, we do not have enough information about learning outcomes and progress. For progress to be measured, we must understand whether children are acquiring the skills that we expect them to acquire at the early level, because if they are not, they will be at a disadvantage in progressing to the first level. Ultimately, that will be compounded and will fuel the attainment gap, which is what we are trying to erode.
The assessments are essential. For the first time, teachers are able to use assessments that are specifically designed for and aligned to curriculum for excellence. For the past two years, I have picked up from teachers around the country that, under CFE, they are not confident in the levels that they should be achieving for their young people. The process has been strengthened by the benchmarks that I have put in place, and the standardised assessments provide consistency and compatibility between authorities so that we can be assured that, wherever a child walks into a school, the teaching profession is working to the same standard across the country.
Is the data being collected at national level? We have been advised that it would not be collected at national level, but the cabinet secretary seems to be suggesting that it is necessary for it to be collected at national level, so that standards can be identified at national level.
I am saying nothing of the sort. I am saying that teachers, in working their way through the assessments, will have greater clarity about the performance of individual young people against the standards across the country—the benchmarks for what we expect from curriculum for excellence. I am talking about the levels that are achieved by young people across the country, not the results across the country.
The assessments are high quality and are delivered as part of everyday learning. They provide teachers with a detailed breakdown against core skills, and they highlight not only where a child might need additional support to achieve the relevant standards, but where a child might be excelling and might require additional challenges. That is in keeping with the Government’s twin aims of closing the attainment gap and raising standards.
Crucially—this relates to part of Liz Smith’s motion—the assessments are designed to fit compatibly with the early level of curriculum for excellence, which is a play-based level. It is therefore appropriate that only a small amount of time—less than an hour in one year, on average—is taken to ensure that the play-based learning that is undertaken by children is equipping them with the core skills that we believe they should acquire by the end of P1. Without that assessment, we will run the risk that the needs of children in progressing on to the first level of CFE might not be effectively served by our education system.
If the assessment is administered correctly, a child will take part in it as part of their normal class work and it will not feel different from any other task that they are asked to do.
I have dealt with the education arguments; I want now to turn to some of the political issues. I acknowledge the long-standing hostility of the Greens and the Liberal Democrats to such testing. They are entitled to their view, but I do not share it. I point out to them that they are hostile to all standardised assessments and that they are being asked to vote for that in the Conservative motion.
“I am pleased that our repeated and sustained calls for standardised assessments to be introduced in schools have been heeded.”—[
, 1 September 2015; c 31.]
The Conservative manifesto in 2016 said that the Scottish Government should
This morning, Liz Smith said that the Conservatives had changed their mind on P1 assessment. That was not what she said on 28 August, when she said:
“The Scottish Conservatives have never been in favour of formal standardised national tests in Primary 1”.
That statement is untrue. It demonstrates the deceit that is at the heart of the Conservative motion today.
Last week, the Conservatives were demanding more school data; this week, they want less. In 2016, the Conservatives supported P1 assessment, but today they do not. There is only one conclusion to draw: the Conservatives are playing politics with the education of our children. We will not play along with them.
I am clear that we on the Labour side of the chamber have no problem with teachers assessing pupils’ learning. Teachers assess pupils’ learning every day using a variety of techniques and diagnostic methodologies and, above all, they deploy their professional expertise to do so.
We also have no problem with the monitoring of literacy and numeracy standards in our schools. We encourage that, and not just nationally. We would like Scotland to re-enter the trends in international mathematics and science study, or TIMSS, and the progress in international reading literacy study, or PIRLS, international comparisons, which, as we found out last week, were ditched not for a good educational reason but to save money.
However, we have a problem with league tables and high-stakes testing, which is why, in 2003 when we were in Government, we got rid of it and replaced it with the literacy and numeracy survey. It did the job well in a statistically rigorous way that was accepted by teachers, educationalists and parents. The current Scottish Government did not improve it, as the OECD suggested, but instead abolished it.
O ur problem is with the Scottish Government’s national standardised tests, which purport to inform individual learning and monitor national standards at the same time with the same test.
Mr Gray said that we use the standardised assessments to judge performance around the country, but that is not the case. We use information from teachers’ professional judgment about the achievement of levels by individual pupils—that is what is undertaken. Does Mr Gray accept that the surveys that he cites do not give us an insight into individual weakness in the system, whereas, if we want to improve outcomes for young people, we need to have that data available to us?
The survey is certainly not a diagnostic learning tool, and it was never claimed to be. It is a summative survey tool. Later on, I will go into a little detail on exactly that point.
James Maxton once said of politics:
“If you can’t ride two horses at once, you shouldn’t be in the circus.”
Mr Swinney has failed to ride the two horses of individual diagnostics and national standardised testing at once. That has resulted in the current mess and in some farcical moments, such as Mr Swinney’s press release that told us that the tests were not tests and that we should stop calling them tests being issued on the same day that his department released an evaluation that called them tests. He also told parents who asked whether the tests were compulsory that they are not compulsory, but that the parents have no right to refuse to allow their child to take them. That is a riddle and not an answer. There was also yesterday’s desperate measure of Scottish Government officials putting MSPs and journalists through a literacy and numeracy test for five-year-olds, as if that would prove anything.
Mr Swinney has clearly told the Parliament that the tests are
“diagnostic assessments to support learning and teaching. Data from them will not be published or used for accountability”.—[
5 September 2018; c 21.]
However, the First Minister has said something different. She said:
“As a result of the introduction of standardised assessment and the new way in which we are monitoring performance, instead of the previous Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy data, we will now have data on every pupil in the country, which will allow us to determine progress in reducing the attainment gap.”—[
, 21 June 2018; c 10.]
The truth is that the Government has managed to introduce assessments that feel like high-stakes tests to teachers and pupils, but do not produce statistically valid comparative measurements, and diagnostic tests that teachers tell us that they do not trust to diagnose and which have not replaced the assessments that they used previously. The Deputy First Minister says that they are not summative assessments against benchmarks with a pass or fail, but yesterday we were shown the teacher sheet for each pupil, which is a list of curriculum for excellence benchmarks with a tick or a cross against each one according to whether it was passed or failed. The pupil is then placed against a national norm. We were shown results being collated at class, school and local authority levels. That looks like summative norm-referenced testing to me.
To be honest, what I think of the assessments is not important; what matters is what teachers think of them, and their views are very clear, not least from the Educational Institute of Scotland.
I acknowledge that many teachers do not like the standardised assessments. Equally, many other teachers like them. The issue was illustrated to me this morning at the Scottish learning festival, where I was open to questions from a huge audience of teachers. In the first group of questions, one teacher made the case for and one teacher made the case against: there are different opinions. What is important is that we have to be equipped with the diagnostic ability to support young people. That is why we have the assessments.
No. What is important is that the evidence, consensus and support are built before an educational reform is introduced, and not after.
Only a couple weeks ago, the EIS, which represents teachers, reaffirmed its
“serious concerns over the educational value” of the national standardised assessments. It wrote to every MSP to do that. One teacher summed things up to me, saying:
“I cannot use the data from these tests to support my teaching in ANY way”.
That teacher’s view was repeated to Mr Swinney at the learning festival this morning.
Those problems and flaws apply to the whole of the Scottish national standardised assessments but, more than anywhere, they apply in P1. There are reasons for that.
First, there are many stories of four and five-year-olds having been upset—even to the point of tears—by questions that they have found incomprehensible or confusing and which required computer skills that they found daunting.
Secondly, that has meant that teachers have told us that, in primary 1, far from those assessments being an integral part of everyday teaching, they have lost 30, 40 or even 50 hours of valuable teaching time for each of the literacy and numeracy tests.
Thirdly—and above all—there is, as Liz Smith said, growing evidence that, at that early age, play-based learning is the most appropriate and effective approach to education in general and closing the attainment gap in particular.
The Deputy First Minister has protested in the past and said again today that there is a play-based curriculum in P1, but the experts tell us that we cannot have that and his standardised tests. They are not compatible. Even if the Government insists on persisting with the tests further up the school while it tries to sort out what they really are supposed to be, at the very least—the very minimum—surely it must listen to the teachers, whose professional expertise Mr Swinney claims to hold in high regard, and scrap the tests in primary 1.
I a m glad that we have this opportunity to debate standardised assessments, after weeks of those of us who speak on education debating the issue outside Parliament.
As the Deputy First Minister made clear, the Scottish Greens have long been clear that we oppose the policy. He was not correct to say, however, that in supporting Liz Smith’s motion we support standardised assessments. Members will not find that phrase in the motion. I will read the first part of it. It says:
“That the Parliament believes that good-quality pupil assessment is an essential component of the drive to raise educational standards in Scotland's schools”.
We agree, but we do not believe that that assessment should take place through the formal standardised assessments. There is no contradiction there, and I will explain why as I go through my speech.
There has been much talk of manifestos. In our 2016 manifesto—a fine read that I would recommend to the Government—we unequivocally opposed the return of standardised assessments, and not just for four and five-year-olds. We welcome the parliamentary majority that has now formed around that position with regard specifically to the P1 assessments.
The Scottish Government has been keen, including in this debate, to say that the policy is evidence based, but it was international best practice and evidence that led the Greens to oppose standardised testing in the first place. To tick off one particular cliché of education debates, I note that Finland is one of the undisputed success stories of education reform. It turned from being mediocre, at best, in the 1980s to being a model of excellence from the early 2000s onwards. Although a range of factors have contributed to its success—most obviously, lower levels of inequality and poverty have supported its success in education—its approach to standardised tests are part of that success story.
Finnish education was reformed to allow teachers the freedom to assist pupils based on their own best judgment. Standardised testing was dropped and replaced by an emphasis on continuous informal assessment of the individual needs of each pupil. Our Education and Skills Committee visited Finland earlier this year, and during that visit we were all struck by the culture of trust in its system—particularly trust in classroom teachers, with proper resourcing, support and training, to come to their own judgments about their pupils. That is what we need in Scotland, particularly for children with additional support needs, for whom the tests cause even more unnecessary anxiety.
Well-trained teachers and well-staffed schools are what we need in order to ensure that every additional need is identified and supported. That means reversing the cuts that have seen educational psychologists, and the grants associated with studying on that course, disappear.
The reason why Finland took the approach that it did is that, although some standardised assessments may provide some data that can be useful—a criticism that has been levelled against Scotland’s assessments is that they do not provide that—the very presence of the tests and the impact that they have on pupil experience and teaching is a net negative. Pupils often react badly to the tests. Some experience anxiety and fear. In others, they elicit boredom. We knew that already. There were warnings from the Scottish Government’s international advisers before the policy was introduced.
Professor Andy Hargreaves, who is a member of the Scottish Government’s international council of education experts, highlighted the fear and anxiety that standardised tests cause pupils. Other academics, the EIS and the experience of individual teachers and pupils have all confirmed that. We have all heard the reports of young children in some cases being reduced to the point of tears and experiencing huge anxiety over the tests, but teachers are also pressured, whether intentionally or not, to teach to the test. As Iain Gray explained, the focus becomes hitting some pre-defined metric regardless of its suitability to the pupil that the teacher knows, and knows best. The professional judgment of individual teachers, which is one of the principles that underpins the curriculum of excellence—and one that we all agree on—is undermined by the policy.
The Deputy First Minister can give all the assurances that he likes on how standardised tests will be used, but the very presence of the assessments creates the pressure to teach to them, rather than emphasising the needs of individual pupils.
Teachers are concerned that the results of assessments far beyond the primary 1 level will be used by senior management and others to form judgments on their professional abilities, because the data can be aggregated to a class level. That is what creates the pressure to teach to the test. There are also well-grounded fears that, although there is no intention—for now—to return to league tables, that sets the groundwork for future league tables, and informal tables may begin to emerge. The presence of standardised tests pushes education to become target driven at a level that is abstracted from the needs of individual pupils.
This cuts straight to the heart of what we want Scottish education to be. Do we want a culture of repeated formal assessments and pressure being heaped on pupils throughout their school lives or a culture of tailored support that recognises the capability of individual students and relies on teachers’ professional judgment to foster their learning, as the curriculum for excellence intends?
What I find particularly frustrating about the introduction of the standardised tests is that all the issues that I have highlighted were already well known. As I mentioned, members of the Scottish Government’s international council of education experts have been at the forefront of some of the criticisms. I appreciate that there are some experts, including on the Government’s council, who support approaches of standardised assessments. The Government has drawn attention to a number of them. I respect their views and I do not for a second doubt their expertise in the field. However, the question that must be asked is why the Government is ignoring the other assembled experts. Why is it ignoring the voices of teachers and pupils, and of people in Scottish education who are saying that there is a problem?
Just this morning, the Education and Skills Committee heard from Professor Jim Scott, as Oliver Mundell mentioned. He said that he had not seen sufficient evidence that the assessments are beneficial. We also heard from Dr Alan Britton, who said that he has not seen evidence of consultation and consensus-building on this policy. That is a polite understatement if I have ever heard one.
Teachers, parents and education charities have all raised concerns and called for the P1 tests to be scrapped. After today’s debate, a majority of members of this Parliament could be added to the ever-growing list of those calling for a rethink. While many of us have concerns far beyond P1 assessments, that is what the debate is focused on.
I urge the Deputy First Minister to walk back his previously stated intentions to ignore the will of this Parliament. After the shambles of his proposed education bill, the majority of which he will now attempt to force through without a Parliamentary mandate, Mr Swinney is developing a reputation for casting aside the views of elected members as well as those of experts, teachers, parents and pupils.
That is no way to build a successful system of education, and it is certainly not building a consensus. It will result in the opposite of Finland’s culture of trust. Today we will give him an opportunity to take a different tack. For the sake of teachers and pupils currently experiencing this failed policy, I hope that he will listen.
I thank Liz Smith for bringing this debate to the chamber today. If the Scottish Government had been sure of its ground, it could have introduced the debate at any point in the past weeks and then Mr Swinney would not have had to miss the learning festival this afternoon. Ministers may want to reflect on the benefits of leading a debate if they are so confident of their arguments.
A retired Edinburgh teacher whom I know provides support to local schools here in the capital, paid for through the Government’s attainment fund. In the past year, she has spent more time helping five-year-old girls and boys to sit their primary 1 test than on the job that she was employed to do by the city council.
On Monday, I sat down with P1 teachers in Shetland who showed me the reality of the tests for five-year-olds. I completely concur with Iain Gray’s assessment of the data that is produced: the children’s names, the numbering, and the questions and the ticks or crosses that can be produced from them. The simple message from those teachers was that they learn nothing about pupils that they did not already know.
As others have already said, two eminent educational researchers told Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee today that they did not recognise evidence, consultation or consensus-building in relation to primary 1 testing. They also pointed out that the Government had not followed a reasonable principle and piloted the initiative to judge its effectiveness.
The principle that I share with most teachers and parents is that four and five-year-old girls and boys should encounter a play-based approach to the start of school. The curriculum for excellence early level for three to six-year-olds stresses exploration and play, yet teachers explain that P1 tests skew learning away from play. Therefore, I do not recognise or agree with the Deputy First Minister’s interpretation of that in his remarks.
There is a wider debate, too, about why Scotland persists with the age of five for the formal start to education. Many countries around the world—88 per cent of them, indeed—structure a play-based nursery or pre-school curriculum through to six years old, and some countries start formal education at seven.
Mr Mason would do well to read the curriculum for excellence guidelines for the three to six-year-old programme and he would understand the answer to that question without needing to ask it. Nursery teachers assess all the time—that is the point, and, frankly, I do not understand why members on the Government benches do not get it.
What is the reality of testing? Rather than go to a civil service tutorial yesterday, I have listened—not just in this past week, but for weeks and weeks over months—to primary 1 teachers and school management teams talking about the reality of testing, and I am sure that I am not the only Opposition member to have done so.
There is a balance to the argument. The former standardised assessment was for some teachers a genuine diagnosis, but teachers have graphically explained that what went before was quite different from the new national standardised tests now in classrooms. To suggest otherwise is simply misleading.
The parents group Upstart also contends that local authority baseline testing is partly responsible for the lack of play-based teaching in many schools.
The structure of the tests assumes that five-year-old boys and girls can read and use a mouse, that they have an attention span that will last the length of the test and that they will not simply guess the answer. That is wrong on all counts, as many teachers observe.
The Scottish Government has repeatedly claimed—the Deputy First Minister did so again today—that the test takes less than an hour per pupil. Indeed, I think that he said that it was an average of 20 minutes. I can find no teacher who confirms that. I understand that, in a class of 21 primary 1 pupils of varying abilities, the average time is an hour per pupil, and not 30 minutes. It is not under an hour—it is an hour.
Mr Scott is right to press on the evidence. The Government either has answered or is about to answer freedom of information requests on that, and those answers demonstrate that the available data shows that the average time for a P1 assessment in numeracy is 22 minutes, and in literacy it is 27 minutes. That information, which is across more than 100,000 individual assessments, is in the public domain.
We will see—we will all cast a close eye on that. I think that the word used was “average”, but we will be happy to look at the evidence on that. All that I am saying is that plenty of teachers, not just from Shetland but from all over the country, have told me time and again that it takes more than an hour per pupil.
The point is not just about the time that it takes the pupil; it is about the time that the teacher takes out of the classroom when he or she could be teaching all the pupils in the class. The Deputy First Minister gave no recognition to that important point in his remarks. The teacher could be spending that time with the 21 pupils as opposed to taking individual pupils bit by bit through the test. Whether it takes 22 minutes, 27 minutes or an hour, that is time not spent in the classroom.
It is therefore wrong to underestimate and disparage the evidence of class teachers everywhere that the time taken on primary 1 tests is time lost to teaching and therefore to the educational advancement of five-year-olds. Testing five-year-olds is particularly demanding on teachers in composite classes, of which there are many in parts of Scotland, but the Government has simply not recognised that as yet.
There are sensible educational arguments why the P1 testing regime is not appropriate and should be stopped. The principle of the argument does not support testing five-year-olds, and the practical case against it is overwhelming. I am at a loss to understand why the Government is deaf to the practical observations of teachers and parents.
Ministers have used extraordinarily aggressive language in talking about anyone who even considers that P1 testing is wrong. Many teachers have asked me why that is the case. There are sensible educational alternatives that help primary 1 teachers in their constant evaluation of their class. For example, why do not ministers listen carefully to teachers who use the northern alliance literacy programme, which is constructive and helps teachers with their pupils? As one teacher put it to me the other day, why does not the Government embrace and support the things that work and help teachers, rather than impose tests that do not tell them anything about their classes that they did not already know?
What is the Government’s case for testing five-year-old girls and boys? Is it about the data that the Government wants? One of Mr Swinney’s officials helpfully explained today how school league tables can be calculated using the data from the P1 tests. Mr Swinney made much of that today. It looks to me like the remorseless direction of travel. Tests are not appropriate for primary 1 girls and boys. The Government should accept that and it should accept the will of the Parliament.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate on primary 1 testing. I do so from the perspective of someone who has two children in primary school and who is also married to a primary school teacher, so what happens in our primary schools is of keen personal interest to me as well as being of wider political importance.
The starting point for the debate is to make it clear that, as Liz Smith set out, we in the Conservatives support standardised assessments as a matter of principle. I know that other parties take a different view—we have already heard from them—but our position is that there is great value in standardised assessments further up the school. Those assessments can be of value to individual teachers, they can help parents in understanding what stage children are at and, equally important, they can give an overall picture of performance across the country.
We have heard the cabinet secretary set out why he believes that standardised assessment is important, and I have sympathy for his argument and agree with a lot of the points that he made. However, it flies in the face of decisions that were taken by him and his predecessors in office to reduce the amount of information that is available. The Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy was scrapped. Mr Swinney’s predecessor removed Scotland from the international trends in international mathematics and science study, or TIMSS, and the progress in international reading literacy study, or PIRLS, which provided important comparisons with other countries.
If the Government is going to make the argument today about the value of assessment, it needs to be consistent in its approach, yet it is being completely contradictory to what it has done in the past.
Today’s debate is not about standardised assessments in themselves. It is focused entirely on one question: are standardised assessments appropriate at P1 level? Here is where we depart from the cabinet secretary. The evidence we have heard from those involved in education, and particularly from teachers on the front line, is that there are real issues with the standardised assessments for P1 as they exist. We know that the EIS opposes the tests. We have heard quoted in the debate today evidence about the views of various teachers and headteachers who have expressed concern about the impact of the assessments. We have also heard the views of many parents, who are deeply concerned about the tests to the extent that many are actively looking to remove their children from the system rather than have them face testing. Liz Smith has already set out in some detail her concerns with the inappropriateness of this form of testing at P1.
I cannot see why such testing is necessary. Any primary 1 teacher who is worth their salt will, within a few weeks—if not days—of new pupils starting at school, have a strong grasp of their individual abilities. It is precisely because we have well-trained and committed P1 teachers that we should have confidence that they can pick up on those children who are doing well, those who are struggling and those who will need additional support. It is therefore difficult to see what improvements a standardised test, as proposed, will bring to the information available to a good primary 1 teacher, given that they should have that information already.
The reality is that if the tests are already proving to be controversial and unpopular with parents, as is the case, large numbers of parents will effectively boycott the tests by removing their children from the system, as they are entitled to do. The value of the tests disappears altogether if a large majority of parents and pupils do not participate. The policy objective is defeated because parents vote with their feet.
In approaching the issue, the Scottish Conservatives believe that we should listen to the evidence. As Liz Smith said earlier, we said in 2016 that we would support P1 testing, but we now accept that that was wrong. We have listened to the evidence and we have changed our minds. We realise that we got that wrong.
“A new education bill will deliver the biggest and most radical change to how our schools are run that we have seen in the lifetime of devolution.”—[
5 September 2017; c 13.]
One year later, it was announced that the bill was to be abandoned. The cabinet secretary seems to be telling us that it is all right for him to change his mind about the way forward, but other parties are not permitted to change their minds. That is an extraordinary set of double standards, even for this Government.
The cabinet secretary has gone further. He has used extraordinary language this afternoon. He accused the Conservatives of deceit because we changed our mind. He should apologise for that remark.
“The Scottish Conservatives have never been in favour of formal standardised national tests”,
yet in his hysterical speech, Murdo Fraser has just confirmed the point.
We know when Mr Swinney is in trouble because he resorts to the language that we have heard this afternoon. [
.] He is allowed to change his mind, but when other people change their minds, they are accused of playing politics. SNP members know that they are on the run—[
I will, Presiding Officer.
There is much in the SNP’s approach to education that we support. Many of its ideas about improving school autonomy, empowering headteachers and putting a renewed focus on literacy and numeracy are ideas that we have championed for years. Therefore, in our approach to education, we can hardly be accused of putting politics before the interests of young people, because our track record speaks for itself.
The vote today is not a vote about party politics, as the cabinet secretary would claim; it is a vote about what is best for our schools and our pupils and what is in the interests of parents. The vote must be not to have standardised tests in primary 1, because the evidence tells us that they are not in the best interests of our children. For that reason, I support the motion in the name of Liz Smith.
I have listened with interest to speeches from across the chamber this afternoon, hoping to get some enlightenment about the positions of the parties on national testing. However, I am afraid that I remain as confused as I was before I came to the chamber.
I will offer some reflections on my experience. My son went through the five-to-14 curriculum. I received report cards for him every year saying that he was working towards a particular level in that curriculum. That was the case even at primary school, when he was working towards level B. Those report cards told me that he was working at the appropriate level and that he had been assessed by the teacher formally as part of that process. That happened from primary 1 onwards.
I then discovered that other tests were being done on my son and the other pupils in North Lanarkshire—the cognitive ability tests, which I had never heard of before. Murdo Fraser talked about parents voting with their feet. I wish that I had had that option but, actually, I knew nothing about those tests. The process was hidden from parents. We were not given any information about when the tests were happening or what the results were. It was a black box in education. After having conducted research into the tests and having listened to the arguments for the assessments, I realised that they were probably to my son’s benefit, and I made the appropriate decision. However, that evidence is not available to most parents.
What we have now is a system in which parents know exactly what is happening in our schools and they can get the results and see an assessment of how their child is doing. That is much more transparent than what was happening before.
I am sorry, Mr Gray; I do not have time.
The other thing that concerned me as a parent was the cost of the tests. It has been mentioned today that, somehow, uniquely, the tests that are being brought forward by this Government cause extreme stress and require the use of extra time and resources in the classrooms. However, there has been no assessment of what happened in relation to the other testing that was going on before, so I am in the dark about that.
I will not be taking interventions.
When looking into this issue, I remembered that some work had been done on the costs of national testing. In June 2005,
Times Educational Supplement Scotland— published details of a survey that it done of 32 local authorities. The survey showed that standardised testing was costing councils over £1 million a year, and the true cost to the Scottish purse was likely to be higher, because Dundee City Council, Dumfries and Galloway Council, Clackmannanshire Council and Stirling Council had not responded to the FOI requests. Further, local authorities such as Glasgow City Council and Perth and Kinross Council did not disclose their costs because testing in their areas was carried out on a school-by-school basis. Did the cost of that testing come out of the school’s budgets or from the education budget of the local authority? I am none the wiser.
TESS report also showed that the assessments were on the increase. North Ayrshire Council had been looking for an authority-wide approach in order to inform its assessment of what was happening with learning and teaching in its area. It proposed to carry out assessments in P1, P3, P5, P7 and S2. That was a Labour-controlled council, but the Labour Party comes to the chamber today to say that it does not agree with primary 1 testing.
The report also showed that the City of Edinburgh Council was the biggest spender on standardised testing, paying out £136,000 a year on literacy and numeracy tests. It used GL Assessment tests and its own P1 baseline assessment to examine literacy. Again, that was a Labour council—in coalition—using P1 tests.
At that time, Lindsay Paterson said that the survey showed that testing was
“not alien to the culture of Scottish teaching or Scottish teacher professionalism”.
Instead of buying in from the likes of Durham University and external organisations, without benchmarking across local authorities or across Scotland, we now have a standardised test that can be used by everyone across Scotland.
I will point to some of the councils that were doing such testing. As I said, Labour in coalition in the City of Edinburgh Council was doing primary 1 testing. West Lothian Council, a Labour-led council, spent £100,000 a year on primary 1 testing; Aberdeenshire Council, a Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition, spent £98,000; and Aberdeen City Council, a Labour and Conservative coalition, spent £95,000 on tests.
However, the Conservatives say that they do not believe in primary 1 testing. Either Opposition parties are completely unaware of what their administrations and local authorities are doing in the classrooms, or they have come here—
—with what the First Minister described as political opportunism. I do not find either of those positions particularly edifying. Having this debate in that context does not serve Scotland’s young people.
Testing has been a standard practice. If there are improvements to be made, let us make them. However, it is wrong to have a fundamental position against primary 1 testing when it has been going on in our schools. We should be looking at improvements and the benefits of such testing for our young people, instead of taking a political stand against the Government. That does not do Scotland’s young people or the Parliament any good.
It is just like being back in the classroom this afternoon.
Today’s motion states:
“good-quality pupil assessment is an essential component of the drive to raise educational standards in Scotland’s schools”.
I begin with a note of consensus, because the exhausting stalemate of political debate that surrounds Scottish education needs it. Teachers deserve it, and it is imperative for our pupils that every political party focuses on the practicalities of closing the poverty-related attainment gap.
Perhaps Professor Lindsay Paterson put it best last week, when he said:
“The simple fact—unpalatable for many politicians and teaching unions—is that education can’t do without tests ... Only reliable data from scientifically standardised tests can enable us to learn from both the failures and the successes.”
Assessments—call it what you will—are not new. In the senior phase of our curriculum, we expect pupils to be ready to sit final examinations at national 5, higher and advanced higher levels.
I would like to make some progress.
Assessment is a golden thread that runs through our education system. As a child progresses, their teacher assesses their progress. Our teachers have always been entrusted to do that. In Fife, it has been completed in our primary schools historically through the assessment for excellence model, which was developed by Durham University. As my colleague Bruce Crawford alluded to, 29 out of 32 local authorities use some form of assessment to benchmark pupil progress. We know that it is not new.
However, assessment under curriculum for excellence changed in its very nature. What might have been an end of unit test in S4 became an outcome and assessment standard, which pupils had to overcome in order to gain unit passes and, therefore, to be presented for the final examination. If a pupil did not pass those units—and an added value unit at national 4, or an assignment at national 5-—they could not gain a full course award and, in some circumstances, they would not be permitted to sit the final examination.
The education secretary was therefore right to remove that unnecessary administrative burden, which had meant that faculty heads such as me with responsibility for a number of different subject areas would sit in schools until late into the evening simply inputting data for the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s benefit.
That is the issue with today’s debate. It has taken primary 1 assessment as a narrow indicator and as something that can be detached from a child’s wider educational journey. I therefore ask that the Government gives consideration to how standardised assessment data correlates and communicates with the managing information system—or SEEMiS, as it is known—which is used by most secondary schools to track pupil progress.
I doubt that there is a single member of the Scottish Parliament who has not sat a test in their lives. Tests are integral features of a modern education system. Indeed, on the Education and Skills Committee, I am glad to be in the company of two former teachers and, across the chamber, I count at least five others in total. However, I think that I am correct in asserting that I am the only former teacher with experience of delivering curriculum for excellence and of the many challenges and opportunities that that system can present.
What existed prior to standardised assessments was, of course, the much-lauded-by-the-Opposition Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy. When I was a faculty head, that data was never shared with me. As a classroom teacher, I had random groups of pupils removed from my classes and then returned during the course of a lesson. However, as a secondee at Education Scotland, I learned the most about what the SSLN meant—administration, running about and providing data to the Government of the day. This has to be the key difference with standardised assessments. At yesterday’s briefing with Scottish Government officials, it was explained to all members who attended that data generated by these assessments is then provided to the teacher to track pupil progress accordingly. This data will mean something to teachers.
I would like to make progress.
Notwithstanding, I think that legitimate concerns have been raised regarding how standardised assessments will be administered. I have consistently raised poor information and communication technology provision in our schools as an issue from my own experience. A primary teacher I know told me of having to sit one to one with her pupils to administer these assessments because there was no wi-fi connectivity.
Yesterday, my Surface decided to give up the ghost while I was preparing my speech for today. Within minutes, a member of the Parliament’s information technology team was in my office and, within the hour, I had a new one. That does not happen in our schools. Wi-fi provision is disparate and technology provision is patchy. We must, therefore, support our teachers in making these assessments work and that means that local authorities need to ensure that they resource our schools on an equal basis.
Last Thursday, I watched a class of schoolchildren look on as the leader of the Opposition party berated the educational system in which they are currently learning. I watched her pivot a question on standardised assessments to the role of parents in directing school education. I watched her hype up a narrative, which has been perpetuated again today, suggesting that Scottish education is failing.
Today’s motion appears to be much of a confused muchness when it comes to the Tories and education. We know that they backed standardised assessments in 2016, but the motion pivots towards play-based learning. I have to wonder whether any of them have actually been in a primary school recently.
Are they seriously suggesting that we allow pupils to play in sandpits and paint pictures with their hands until the end of S3? I hope that every member will reflect on the purpose of assessment. We all sat some form of assessment to get here and, if we are to have an education system that provides an equal chance for every pupil to succeed, we must empower our teachers to make the necessary interventions that will do just that.
I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate, although it does not particularly feel as though it is a debate at this stage; I hope that, at a later stage, people will be willing to take interventions.
I wish to express my concern at the way in which those defending the Scottish Government position have dismissed the issue by suggesting that it has been all got up by those who are motivated by their opposition to the SNP. They ought not to judge others by their own standards. It is a well-known tactic to impugn the motives of those raising concerns so that the concerns themselves do not need to be addressed. In doing that, members have shown great disrespect for those parents, teachers, educationalists, childcare workers and others who have had the temerity to suggest that the Scottish Government approach is seriously flawed. I suspect that many of those people, including primary school teachers, have been in a primary school in the past week or so.
I also wish to express concern at the attempts to characterise the debate as being between those who care and want to bring rigour through standardised testing, and a teaching profession that does not care and simply resists change, whatever that change may be.
All through my teaching career, I was driven by a passion and desire to see rigour in the system—a rigour that ensured that children, wherever they were born and whatever their circumstances, could achieve their potential. I have always believed that the education system should raise ambition and expectation, not shrug away a child’s life chances on the basis of where they were born. That is the test that I apply to this policy—will it improve those chances? I do not believe that it will.
I say to the cabinet secretary: teachers who oppose this testing do so not because they do not care, but precisely because they do care. Teachers want real change in the lives of young people, not something that creates a busyness in the system but has no evident benefit.
I move on to the tests themselves. Yesterday, I attended the demonstration—I use that word loosely—which raised a whole series of questions for me. The assessment can be taken at any time during primary 1, so children could do the test at any age between four and a half and six. There was no clarity on the level of support that a child could get to complete the assessment: a teacher might help them; an additional support teacher might help them; indeed, a buddy from primary 7 might help them—no consistency was suggested in that regard. Pupils were to get loads of practice ahead of the assessment, so that they understood what the questions might involve. It was clear, despite claims to the contrary, that the assessment is not consistent, cannot be used as a survey of national trends in literacy and numeracy and is not just part of the normal learning experience. In truth, it disrupts that experience.
As Iain Gray said, our short experience of a rather shambolic lunchtime presentation is not what is relevant. What do teachers and families tell us? Teachers say that tests take up teacher time and take time away from learning. They take classroom support away from individual pupils who need it to manage the class while the tests are being run. The information that the test provides is less useful to them than the assessments that they make themselves. There is huge effort, but to little or no purpose. It is no wonder that those who are in the front line of supporting our young people are so frustrated at the approach of the Scottish Government.
It is hard to assess the opportunity costs of this focus. Not only does it not support learning; it compounds the pressure already on teachers and support staff. Even if the assessment produces a diagnosis—one that most teachers will already have been able to make for themselves—it will not bring with it the help that the diagnosis identifies is needed. The Government funds a test, but it will not provide extra learning support to help a child catch up; it will not bring in the educational psychologist to assist with more complex needs; it will not bring in a home links teacher for the wee soul whose family circumstances are denying the child peace to learn; it will not provide additional support for those with additional support needs who need help to sustain a full day or full week in school and who are currently on part-time timetables. It will not reduce workload—it will disrupt it further. Although Mr Swinney wants to do more testing, he is reducing the support that staff and teachers have in the classroom every day.
This is the nub of it: standardised assessment is not a policy that has been developed over time and consensus has not been built around its worth. It started as a line to take when the Government was under pressure on its record on education. The problem for the cabinet secretary is that, in seeking to answer the question on how to improve Scottish education, he has not followed the basic good practice that is so revered in the education system: look at the question, study the evidence, draw conclusions and outline action. Do not start at the conclusion and then work a way back to find a way to justify it—that is poor practice in education and it is even poorer practice when its consequences are so significant for the education of our children. It is time for the cabinet secretary to stop the defence that he has deployed so far: that he is the only one who cares. It is time for him to step back, not dig in; to listen, build consensus, change his approach and ensure that our young people are at the centre of this process and that none of them are denied the opportunity to have a proper education.
If we want to get it right for every child, we must ensure that we catch each individual at least by the time that they reach their first moments of education. As a constituency MSP, I deal with many inquiries about education provision and outcomes. Often parents tell me stories about their children’s abilities and trials. When they have identified a difficulty with a child’s ability to learn, they frequently tell me that they wish that it had been picked up earlier in order for that child to have received the support necessary to enable them to reach their unique potential.
I have never met a parent who has complained about early intervention with regard to supporting a child’s educational needs. Parents recognise that the earlier a problem, or indeed a talent, is identified, the more support and educational nurturing that young person can receive. Education does not just start in primary 7 or national 5 level or even when young people sit highers; a good education starts with a firm foundation from the day that our children pass through a school door—if not before.
The standardised testing does not provide a mark that determines the educational destination that a child will arrive at in the future; it is merely a process in which education providers can gather the appropriate information and data to ensure that no child is missed out or left behind. Teachers need a benchmark to gauge the abilities and attributes that each child has and those that they need in order to succeed. It is really important to acknowledge that these assessments form only part of the picture when it comes to a child’s progress and development.
Does the member think that these tests actually show what he says they show? Many teachers feel that they provide a benchmark that they could otherwise judge for themselves, and that they do not tell them anything about the individual’s potential.
So, I have seen the test. We have a four-year-old in our house regularly—in fact, he is not yet four but will be very soon. There were lots of questions that I think that he would have been able to answer. The test is adaptive.
Hold on. Let me finish answering your question.
If answering those questions was the limit of what that child could have achieve, that would show where they are—that is what the child would know. However, if the child was doing well, the questions would get harder and harder until they found the level that the child was at.
It is in no way a pressured test. I hear about children crying when they are doing the tests. Children have always cried at school.
Hold on a second. I remember the day that I started primary school: one girl started crying in the corridor and the next thing we knew there was a corridor full of greetin weans. When they are young, anything can set them off. Please do not mix the two together and say that the tears of a child are about the test.
It really is important to acknowledge that the assessments form only part of the picture. The assessments have no results and are used alongside many other teaching tools to provide a more accurate and complete picture of developmental progress. The Government has always made it very clear that the assessments are a guide to creating a tailored and specific education for each and every child and they are in no way, shape or form a negative tool. As I said earlier, the tests should be used to identify any early intervention that is necessary.
I read a brilliant article in
The Herald that argued that we should take the politics out of this debate. It highlighted why it is so important that we look at this issue rationally and not engage in the scaremongering that can be so damaging when parents already face so many difficult choices in raising children.
The discussion about what is best for our children should fundamentally have their best interests at heart. It should not be used as some sort of political football. To be quite honest, this seems like just another Tory and Labour stunt. The Conservative Party is known for many things—not many of them positive—but at this moment in time the party mantra seems to be U-turn above all else. We have all witnessed Ruth Davidson’s spectacular 180 when it comes to Brexit, but this current change in her party policy is quite something to behold. Not only does it appear that the Tories agreed with the standardised testing policy; they were once publicly supportive of this Government’s commitment to it. Liz Smith herself released statements to the press criticising previous structures of testing and encouraging the Scottish Government to improve the very assessments that the motion criticises. That smacks of opportunism and blatant hypocrisy. We have all witnessed the Tory Party’s ability to use pretty much anything to attack the SNP. However, I am shocked at its willingness to take something as important as a child’s education and use it to serve its own agenda.
When I was convener of the Education and Skills Committee, I worked well with Liz Smith and I have the highest regard for her. I know that she has a genuine interest in the future of all our children and young people. For that reason, I am incredibly surprised that she has put her name to the motion. I strongly urge her to reconsider her position on this.
We should be using this platform in the chamber to draw together to close the attainment gap. It has angered me that we are using this valuable time to discuss something that has been supported by parties across the chamber. I am sure that Labour and the Lib Dems will be asking, “Where?” Just before I came into the chamber, I was on the television with a Conservative and a Lib Dem. They both said that these tests were the worst thing in the world and that they would be the ruination of every child. However, four councils have Lib Dem and Conservative coalitions and they are all using standardised testing. Four of them were using it beforehand and four of them are using it now.
The Labour Party uses standardised testing everywhere that it is in power. It is not the assessments that you do not like; it is not even the standardisation of the testing—it is the SNP bit at the end of it that you do not like. That is the terrible thing about this debate today. It is not about children’s education or the assessments; it is about trying to get one over. It is about people smelling blood and thinking that they can get a victory.
I am delighted to speak in this afternoon’s debate in support of my party’s motion on this important subject.
Assessments can play a clear role in the drive to raise educational standards, but the speeches that I have heard so far from my colleagues have made clear why we must support the motion that calls for a halt to P1 testing. My colleagues highlighted the significant educational evidence that underpins the need to halt assessments at P1 level. What has been introduced for primary 1 children sits uneasily with the play-based philosophy of early years provision that is set out in the curriculum for excellence.
My colleagues demonstrated that the debate is important, not for political reasons, as has been suggested more than once, but because it will impact on the lives of four-year-old and five-year-old children—the youngest and potentially most vulnerable children in our education system. Moreover, the botched implementation of standardised assessment in primary 1 has affected not just those young people but their parents. I will focus on parents in my speech.
Parents should not have to fight for accurate and transparent information about their children. When they request information from the Scottish Government about the assessments that their children are undertaking, the response should be clear and correct, at the very least. However, when we consider the timeline of Scottish Government interventions in the prolonged conversation on primary 1 testing, it is obvious that that has not been the case.
First, Scottish Government documents did not make clear whether parents could withdraw children from the assessments. Then, emails released under freedom of information legislation revealed that a Scottish Government civil servant had said “children can be withdrawn”. Weeks later, a Scottish Government spokesperson said:
“there is no statutory right for parents to withdraw their child from any aspect of schooling other than some parts of religious education.”
Finally, a civil servant misquoted advice from the Society of Local Authority Lawyers and Administrators in Scotland—SOLAR. The organisation publicly refuted the Government’s statement.
When we consider that series of messages, who can blame parents for being confused? This SNP Government contradicts itself on a weekly basis.
The member quite rightly said that parents deserve information. How does she square the need to give parents information about how their children are doing with her preferred option of stopping assessments that have been in place for years?
We have very professional teachers, who are more than capable of assessing children and giving parents the information that they require, on a daily basis.
The cabinet secretary’s apology to the Parliament for the error to which I referred was welcome, but it does not change the fact that such a level of confusion is unacceptable. Hard-working parents do not have time to decipher muddled messages from the Scottish Government, and on a topic of such paramount importance as their children’s education, they simply should not have to do that. Parents should not encounter political spin when they ask about their children.
It is little wonder that people’s opinion of local schools was at a record low in the Scottish Government publication, “Scotland’s People Annual Report: Results from the 2017 Scottish Household Survey”, which was released two weeks ago. In 2011, 85 per cent of people were very or fairly satisfied with the quality of local schools, but the rate had dropped to just 70 per cent in 2017. Under the SNP, parents’ confidence in schools is plummeting.
Yet only this week, the cabinet secretary appeared on “Sunday Politics” to say that he might not respect the view of the Parliament on today’s Scottish Conservative motion. I sincerely hope that that will not be the case, and I shall remain hopeful until things are proved otherwise.
Parents, teachers and organisations from Upstart to the Scottish Childminding Association to the EIS are giving the cabinet secretary a clear message: it should be play-based learning, and not tests, for primary 1 children. Scottish children should not be doing tests at an early age when, in many European countries, they would be up to two years from starting their formal education. While five-year-olds in Frankfurt and Florence are happily enjoying the play-based learning of kindergarten, five-year-olds in Falkirk are having to face the pressure, stress and anxiety of standardised testing.
The clear message that parents and education professionals are sending the Government is shared by those on this side of the chamber. It is also shared in the principles of the Scottish Government’s curriculum for excellence. By continuing with the assessments, the SNP will be disregarding the guidelines within its own documents. That can only add to the confusion for parents and teachers, who are already struggling to cope with the excessive bureaucracy and workload that have been foisted on them by the SNP’s handling of the implementation of the curriculum for excellence.
It is time that the cabinet secretary listened. He is aware that we in the Conservative Party are behind him on the principle of standardised assessment in general. However, as we move forward, two things have become clear.
First, the assessments cannot continue for children as young as four. Secondly, and quite simply, parents must be treated better.
In conclusion, I would like to quote the words of the executive director of Connect, Eileen Prior, who said:
“Whether they are called national tests or national assessments, whether the Scottish Government says they are tests or they aren’t, it’s time to scrap them for Primary 1 children.”
Presiding Officer, thank you for affording me the opportunity to speak in this debate, in which, as Clare Adamson said, some contributions have contained more heat than light.
It is a fact that nearly everybody feels qualified to speak on education, because they have been through the education system themselves or may have children, or even grandchildren, who have been there more recently. My interest in education stems from my mother having taught primary 1 or the reception class for many years, from having worked in the sector myself at both secondary and college levels and from having chaired my children’s primary school parent council, but—most important and relevant—from having driven forward the implementation of the curriculum for excellence as Minister for Schools and Skills from 2007 to 2009. We should not forget that Scotland has an education system that is world leading and that many educationists across the world watch with interest and envy and adopt elsewhere.
Not at the moment.
As we have heard, primary 1 testing is not new. Of the 32 local authorities,
29 carried out such testing prior to the introduction of national assessment. As Lindsay Paterson, professor of educational policy at the University of Edinburgh, and a not infrequent critic of Government policy, said:
“The simple fact—unpalatable for many politicians and teaching unions—is that education can’t do without tests ... Only reliable data from scientifically standardised tests can enable us to learn from both the failures and the successes.”
Those are Professor Paterson’s words, not mine.
Is not the real issue about the 29 local authorities that do testing? I have been involved in such tests, and they bear no comparison to what is being described now. Would it not be an option for there to be discussion, through Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education, with the three authorities that do not have such assessments, so that they could decide what kind of test it would be and whether the way in which it was done was appropriate?
I was just going to say that if we did not have national standardised testing it would be left to local authorities to do their own, and then the Opposition parties would be complaining about a lack of consistency and standardisation and a postcode lottery. Those parties are keen to find evidence on early years testing, but the truth is that there is not much of that out there.
I found one research paper relating to kindergartens in the United States.
“there is a long history of screening children in kindergarten for sensory, language, and cognitive abilities in order to refer children with disabilities for early treatment”.
“teachers can alter their instruction to help ensure that students are learning to read and not falling through the cracks ... early detection helps deter later reading problems ... with intensive intervention, students ages 8 to 10 could increase their accuracy in reading but could not catch up in their fluency rates.”
In the US, kindergartens are encouraged
“to use assessment to inform instruction with the end goal of increasing student achievement.”
Not a single constituent has contacted me about P1 testing, but what on earth do I say to my constituents if they tell me that their child’s possible autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, hearing difficulty, sight difficulty, dyslexia or any other conditions has not been picked up and addressed because the opportunity to identify those through P1 tests has been scrapped because of the Opposition parties’ blatant politicking? Their position has nothing to do with our children and their future, getting it right for every child, having individualised learning plans, raising attainment and giving every child an equal start in life, but everything to do with the negative—even destructive—opposition of the Conservatives in this Parliament.
Today, the Conservatives have been called out as not only being uninterested in the wellbeing and the education of our children and interested only in those who are growing up in loving, nurturing surroundings and who are fit, healthy and thriving; they have been called out as being not at all interested in identifying those children who are struggling because they have not had that nurturing environment, who are hungry because of the Tories’ disgraceful welfare policies, or who have experienced too many adverse childhood events in their lives, which inhibits their concentration and ability to learn.
Today, we see the Conservatives all over the place as their hypocrisy is called out. Previously, they were all in favour of tests. Last week, they were calling on us to scrap the tests. This week, they are calling on us to suspend them, or they are saying that the tests are too difficult or that they are not telling us enough. Which is it? Only five or six members took the time to find out about the tests for themselves.
Cabinet secretary, the tests have not even been running for a year. Of course they should be reviewed, and refined if necessary, but do not kowtow to these disgraceful chancers that surround us in this chamber.
I will take a deep breath, because this is not how I was planning to start my speech, but there must be correction of some of the statements that we have heard.
It is simply a mistake to confuse assessments for neurodevelopmental disorders with testing: they are completely and utterly different things. We need to build understanding of neurodevelopmental disorders, and we must not blur the boundaries between the different categories, because that will not help the arguments or debates, and it will not help in understanding the needs of people with dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder and ADHD so that they can get the help that they require. The tests are a barrier to those things; they do not help them.
I will highlight a single question from the tests. It has a picture of a feather and asks what word sounds like the picture. A child with autism spectrum disorder or dyslexia—and, perhaps, a child with ADHD—would find that question in particular to be hugely stressful and difficult to answer. They would be left confounded and confused about what they were required to answer. No one can tell me that it is all right because it is a multiple-choice question. We are talking about five-year-olds who have never had to answer multiple-choice questions. Let us not confuse diagnostic tests with academic tests for literacy and numeracy.
I turn now to what I had intended to say. It is important that we look at the merits of the tests, what they aim to do and how they do it in the context of the education system that we all want. That is not a party-political question; it should involve a dispassionate and objective debate about what role the tests have in general and, more important, what role they can play for five-year-olds in P1. There has been too much blurring of the general and the particular. There is the argument on the generalities of testing, which is that we must ensure that children get used to testing, and then there is the argument on the specifics of P1 testing. I argue that they are two very different arguments.
I speak in the debate not from the perspective of a politician, but as a parent. I had to learn a lesson of my own the other day. It was a proud moment when my daughter, who is six and has just gone into P2—she sat the test last year, but we did not find out about it in advance—read her own bedtime story for the first time. I did not read the story to her; she read it to me, and she did it with passion and with joy. She read the words, not all of which were straightforward. The story—it was “Cinderella”—included words like “enchanted”. She read it with intonation and pleasure that enabled me to see that her education is working. I did not need a test to tell me that.
A mere matter of weeks earlier, I had been worried about whether her reading was up to scratch and whether we ought to spend more time with her at home trying to get her up to speed. That would have been wrong, because the value of her education at this point is not to do with the precision with which she reads; it is to do with the passion with which she reads, the enjoyment that she gets from reading and the fact that she finds it useful for her own life. That is what a five-year-old should be reaching in primary 1—not arbitrary academic standards, which are for much further down the line in children’s academic careers.
It strikes me that testing at that point is counterproductive in far more fundamental ways. The philosophy that curriculum for excellence was meant to enshrine is about trusting teachers and allowing them to design the curriculum that is relevant to their communities and their children. The P1 testing does not do that. We are talking about arbitrary centralised tests which, ultimately, teachers will always teach to. We do not want teaching to the test, especially in the early years, when we ought to be encouraging learning through play. I fail to see how testing for literacy and numeracy using multiple-choice tests is in any way compatible with learning through play.
What is more, I think that such testing stifles innovation. I know that the Deputy First Minister is passionate about ensuring that we engender a culture of innovation in our education system, and I agree with him on that. A lesson that I have learned has come from seeing the value of innovation in my daughter’s school, where the nursery and primary 1 have been combined. The children do not have fixed classrooms or fixed teachers through the day. The school has embraced learning through play by combining the nursery and primary 1. I fear that by imposing tests such as the P1 tests we will make teachers fearful of innovating in that way, because they will know about the tests and might think that such innovations are simply not worth the risk.
We need to learn the lessons from elsewhere in the world; Ross Greer set out very well the lessons that are to be learned from Finland. It is clear that high-performing education systems trust their teachers and pursue a less centralised and less prescriptive method. In assessing children, they trust teachers’ professional judgment rather than tests.
I have outlined the direction that the debate should have taken. It should not have been about which party said what and when, or whether a particular press release or speech could be found in which a party said one thing or another. The debate should be about whether tests are helpful for our five-year-old children. That is the substance of the matter. That is what is at stake, and that is what we should be discussing. Let us ignore the rest of the political flimflam and nonsense that we have heard. It is clear that, if we are serious about the education of our five-year-olds, testing them should play no part in their school experience.
I am afraid that, of all the speakers so far, I probably bring to the debate the least amount of relevant life experience. Three years of lecturing postgraduate students does not qualify me as a teacher—that is for sure—and I am not a dad, so I have nothing to offer in those respects. On the other hand, I have nine great-nieces and great-nephews, a goddaughter and seven nephews and nieces, so I have had some exposure to the issue.
I will pick up on what Daniel Johnson said about multiple-choice tests being stressful. I found it quite stressful to stand beside my goddaughter with a Portsoy Ice Cream gift voucher in her hand—she was not yet three years old—as we experienced the multiple choice of 32 flavours of ice cream. That illustrates the general point that developing skills starts early. I think that by the time they get to five, every child has gone through many multiple-choice examinations; it is just that none of them has been in the academic sector. There is nothing unfamiliar to them in being presented with choices. That is an illustration of how we might all be guilty of overplaying some of the issues.
In the early stages of the debate—this was remedied later, in particular by Alison Harris—members made comparatively little mention of children, but we should put children, rather than teachers, at the centre of the debate. However, teachers are clearly not unimportant and neither are parents. That is for sure.
The real thing in the debate is that the Conservatives have changed their minds: they are entitled so to do. I have occasionally changed my mind, and my political colleagues have occasionally changed theirs. There is nothing wrong with that. If new information comes along, new conclusions can, reasonably, be reached.
However, the question is on what the overall Tory position is on testing, which takes me back to my intervention on Liz Smith, during the first speech in the debate. South of the border, the Tories are moving in a very different direction. From September 2020, the new reception baseline assessment will be statutory for all pupils in England. That is for the reception class or, in other words, kindergarten—before pupils get to primary school. That will be coupled with testing in the first and second years of primary school.
“Our experience in producing a reception baseline assessment in 2015 demonstrated that it is possible to undertake a robust assessment of children’s language, literacy and numeracy skills at this age.”
In other words, at age four, five or six. We should hold on to that expert advice. It is vitally important to lasting and significant change that parents and teachers be provided with transparent and consistent information. That is what the Tories are introducing in England. They have bluntly tried to disconnect the Tories in Scotland from that and take a different position, but there is one Tory party, so I am not at all clear on what basis we should properly look—
I think that we had a confession there that the Tories are getting it wrong, which is quite interesting. If they are getting it wrong in England, it is perfectly possible for us to consider that they might be getting it wrong in Scotland. [
It is interesting that we would take a different position from the one that has been taken down south. Will Mr Stevenson concede that the SNP might be getting it wrong up here?
I am rarely accused of getting it wrong and I never admit to it. That is not true.
I always look at evidence, but the evidence in this case is that, as has been the case for Maureen Watt, not one constituent has contacted me on the subject.
It is simply not the talk of the steamie among those for whom it matters—the pupils and the parents. That is the kind of evidence that is driving me.
It has been said that children at age four, five or six should not be exposed to computers. I spent 30 years working in computers, but I find that most six-year-olds are more adept at working a tablet than I am. Therefore, that is not a particularly credible argument.
Even in Denmark, local government wants to introduce statutory testing for three-year-olds in kindergarten. There are many different ways of looking at the problem. I am very happy to support the Scottish Government’s approach.
Finally, testing is important. Would we let a driver on the road without their having passed the driving test?
The debate gets more interesting as it goes on.
Like Liz Smith and my other colleagues, I believe that assessment is a key part of learning and education, not least so that we can ensure progress and understand where a child has got to, but also to ensure that we have some degree of accountability in our education system as a whole. However, the debate is not about that. It is not about whether we should formally assess our children during their education; it is about the value and appropriateness of doing so in P1.
The early years of education are about building the foundations of literacy and numeracy. Children need to develop their confidence in using language. Although I am not always a cheerleader for curriculum for excellence, its early years positioning is about the holistic development of the child, based on structured play. That enables the individual child to broaden their vocabulary, develop more complex sentence structures, recognise patterns and ensure that, no matter what their starting point is, they will be equipped to cope with the rigours of formal learning and assessment as they go through the system.
We know that all children do not develop their readiness for formal learning at the same age and that structured play has a huge role in contributing to that readiness and to the way in which an individual child will engage in literacy and numeracy later on. Daniel Johnson referred to those things. The ability to access and understand information effectively is critical to our children’s life chances and wellbeing.
Most members are not experts on education, so it is incumbent on us to pay heed to both educationists and teachers. I acknowledge that differences of opinion exist, but there is increasing evidence and clarity from all sides that formal standardised tests in P1 cut across the principles of a play-based curriculum.
I was one of the people who took the time yesterday to attend the event that the cabinet secretary arranged to try out the P1 assessment and discuss with the project team the intentions behind it. I thank Mr Swinney for that opportunity. I might have seen the assessment in schools, but it was really good to talk to the team that is developing it. However—there is a big however—Mr Swinney may be a bit disappointed to hear that that only served to confirm my view that the administration of the assessments in P1 has little or no real value.
I found the use of the word “standardised” quite confusing by the end of the meeting, as each child may be given the assessment in a different way. They could be given it alone, in a group, with a P7 buddy or with a teacher. It could be at the beginning or the end of P1 or in the middle of it—and, of course, there is already potentially an age difference of a year in children in P1. The assessment could be done by reading what is on a screen, or children could listen by pressing a button. The person with them could read out the assessment. Not every child would complete the whole assessment, depending on how difficult they found it.
I can accept the argument that the assessments should not cause children undue stress if they are administered appropriately, but it is clear that there have been and are considerable resource challenges in respect of the time that it takes to set them up and administer them and to wind up afterwards, and in respect of the facilities that are needed. Many teachers have told me that they do not have computers in their classrooms, so the children have to leave the classroom to undertake the assessment. There is a pressure if all of that cannot be done in a very supportive way, and there is a pressure on the child when they do an assessment for the first time.
Unlike in the design of most learning and development tools for that age group, no positive feedback or encouragement was built into the process.
There was confusion about exactly how the results will be used. We asked the question, and initially we were told that they were just for the teacher and maybe the headteacher, but later in the discussion we were told that performance tables could be created. We heard about that earlier in this afternoon’s debate. We were told that the assessments enable the child’s progress to be tracked, yet it was made clear that the test can be delivered only once and that the system blocks the child out after that. It cannot be re-administered, so there is no way of seeing whether the child has improved. However, when I asked whether the assessment provides a baseline for the child’s ability, I was told that it was not that, either.
We were told that the assessment would allow the teacher and headteacher to understand where the child is in comparison with others and to identify their strengths and weaknesses in their knowledge and understanding. When the question was asked whether a competent teacher could do that without the standardised test in P1, we were told that the answer was yes, but that they might not have had the time to get to know the child in that level of detail and the test would speed things up. I cannot say that I found that terribly edifying. I would hope that my primary 1 teacher would know my child—or, hopefully, my grandchildren, in times to come.
I do not doubt the cabinet secretary’s sincerity when he said:
“We need to keep this in some sense of perspective. Because what I do not want to happen is that young people come through our education system, have an issue which is not identified early enough, and all the international evidence tells us that if you don’t identify an issue in an individual at the earliest possible opportunity it’ll just get worse and worse.”
However, I have to ask him whether he believes that the tests identify barriers to learning such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and visual or auditory limitations. Those are the things that need to be identified early, at P1. If we can identify and address those, we will be making real progress, but I do not believe that they are captured by the assessments. I would welcome comment from the cabinet secretary on improving early access to assessment and support for those very real barriers.
“My door is very much open on this question to ... reduce the amount of bureaucratic burden that teachers feel they are facing.”
I put it to him that today is an opportunity to do just that by supporting the motion.
This debate should have been about making sure that teachers have access to good-quality information to help to inform their judgment about pupil performance. It should have been about making sure that parents have access to information about the performance of their children and the schools that they learn in. It should have been about making sure that the right people have access to the right information about our young people in order to ensure that progress can be made to raise attainment.
Instead, what I have witnessed is political parties wilfully rewriting history—a history in which the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative parties have supported assessments in primary 1. It is blatant political opportunism, and that they are prepared to do this at the expense of kids’ education is an utter disgrace.
Ignoring the political point scoring that has been going on, I want to move on and talk about what is actually going on in our schools just now.
No, thank you.
Attending the information event yesterday, I and a number of SNP colleagues heard that the assessments are taken by children only once during the school year and that there is no set timetable. The assessments do not have to take place at a set time of year but can take place when teachers and schools decide that the pupils are ready. The assessments consist of about 30 questions, and on average they take 27 minutes, but there is no time limit. The questions are multiple choice and they get progressively harder or easier depending on each individual pupil’s ability.
The assessments are completed online and are marked automatically, saving the teacher time and allowing them to focus on teaching. Teachers get instant feedback from the assessments so that they can provide the support that is needed for each child’s numeracy and literacy development.
Of course, no new system of assessment will be perfect. That is why the Scottish Government published on 28 August the user review report on the first year of the assessments and why it has already made changes.
I spoke to a local teacher who highlighted that their school has a computer suite, which has meant that the pupils have to go to a separate and unfamiliar room for the assessment; that should be addressed. Ideally, children should be able to take the assessment in a familiar environment, but to call for a ban on standardised national assessments is not the answer; it is just short-sighted political opportunism.
In carrying out research for this debate, I came across an education department report that stated:
“In primary schools, standardised assessment, using local authority tests at the beginning and end of P1 in literacy and numeracy, has been established for the last ten years.”
No, thank you.
The report continues by highlighting that the results of the assessments are used in many ways by schools and it lists eight benefits, including contributing to the identification of pupils who may require additional support and supporting the process of monitoring pupils’ progress.
I forgot to mention that the extract was from the attainment report for the education, children and families committee of Edinburgh City Council, published in March 2009 and covering the 2008 academic year. The report highlights that standardised assessments have been used in Edinburgh schools since June 1998, and they continue to the present day.
Political parties in Edinburgh were so opposed to those standardised assessments that during the eight years when Labour controlled the council it made no attempt to reverse the policy. The Liberal Democrat coalition of 2007 to 2012 also made no attempt to reverse the policy, and neither did the Labour coalition from 2012 to 2017. It was policy that Labour itself had introduced, back in 1998.
That hypocrisy of those political parties that are now opposed to P1 testing did not happen only in our capital city. Out of 32 local authorities, 29 councils were already carrying out annual P1 assessments—councils in which Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative parties were in administration. Not only did those councils already carry out P1 assessments, but many of them had two P1 assessments—one at the start and one at the end of P1.
Why was there no issue when councils run by their parties were carrying out P1 assessments, but there is now? The only difference that I can see is that an SNP Scottish Government is administrating them—and it saves councils £9 million a year. Suddenly to claim that there is an issue with P1 assessments when an SNP Government adopts the policy nationally is insincere and those parties should be ashamed of themselves. They saw a chance to attack the SNP and have had no problem in doing a 180-degree turn on their own manifesto promises and the policies that their own councils have implemented. It is disgraceful.
I am in my last minute.
The fact is that, when it comes to educating our young people, no party should be exploiting the issues for political gain. Nobody should stand in the way of driving up standards in our schools just for the sake of some headline-grabbing, political kick-about. Unfortunately, that is all that we have seen from Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives today.
In closing for Scottish Labour, I thank the Conservatives for bringing the debate to the chamber today. I will be voting in favour of the motion to stop testing primary 1 children in our schools. I do so at the behest of parents and teachers from across West Scotland who have contacted me in the past week and the past few months.
I repeat what Iain Gray said in opening the debate for Labour: we on this side of the chamber have no problem with teachers assessing pupils. Teachers assess pupils’ learning every day, using a variety of techniques and diagnostic methodologies, and they deploy their professional expertise to do so. Nor do we have a problem with the testing of literacy and numeracy. However, the idea that children as young as four and a half years old are being assessed in our schools is, frankly, absurd. It is nonsense for the Scottish Government to pretend that it is about assessing and tackling attainment, and the range of evidence and opinion on the issue shows how out of touch the SNP is with teachers and parents.
A child who was born in late February 2014 would sit the same test as a child born in April 2013. The age gap is nothing new in our education system, but the development of four and five-year-olds can be staggeringly different, and more so than at any other age of primary or secondary school. Children in primary 1 should learn in a stress-free and welcoming environment, with constant support from teachers and support workers. Every hour that the teacher spends on carrying out the tests is an hour that could have been better spent developing and supporting our children’s basic educational and emotional skills.
I stated at the outset that teachers and parents from West Scotland have been in touch with me over this flawed policy.
No—not at the moment. I would like to make a bit of progress.
I will read out just a few of the comments that I have received. One teacher in Renfrewshire writes:
“The best data on pupils is gathered by teachers while teaching, through the formative assessment that takes place every day in classrooms. I believe that the Scottish Government have chosen not to listen to teachers and even their own expert advisers.”
Those are the sincere beliefs and experiences of a teacher who deals with young children every single day. At the heart of the debate lies a serious question: why does the cabinet secretary think that he knows better than teachers with decades of experience or parents, who know best about the wellbeing of their children? It is the cabinet secretary’s blinkered view that is causing this unnecessary damage in our schools.
Instead of teachers teaching, we waste already stretched resources in carrying out useless tests of four and five-year-olds. Another teacher, this time from Inverclyde, contacted me to say:
“4 and 5 year olds are expected to sit at a computer for up to, and in many cases, more than an hour, for each of three assessments.
They are using equipment with which they may be unfamiliar, on a Wi-Fi or hardwired connection that is not fit for purpose, to engage in repetitive activities.
This needs adult supervision often taking classroom assistants, nurture teachers, learning support teachers and in many cases management teams away from their ‘normal’ duties—this then impacts on the rest of the school and on the workload of that staff.
And for what? For a bureaucratic nightmare.”
Another teacher from Renfrewshire writes:
“As a teacher and EIS member, I am contacting you to ask you to back scrapping these tests. In my own school, they have caused stress and upset both to children and staff.
Testing young children is not necessary, the data gathered is not useful and these tests set children up for a lifetime of hating tests.
Those comments are from staff who are on the front line of teaching, not from people sitting in a central Government office. They know better than any member of the Cabinet, and I ask the Scottish Government to listen to those voices.
Presiding Officer, have I got six minutes or seven?
I apologise to Mr Dornan in that case, because I will not be able to take his intervention. I wanted to make some progress with some of the comments that I wanted to make. In the few seconds that I have left, I want to pick up on a comment that Mr Dornan made in his contribution when he said that children cry all the time and it has got nothing to do with the tests.
When a parent says that the tests made their child feel sick and cry and that their child was crying because they were made to go on a computer and they could not use it to do the test, that is not the supportive and nurturing environment that I want our children to be in. If the Parliament votes today to halt the assessments for P1 children, that is what the Scottish Government must do. The cabinet secretary must listen to the voice of Parliament.
I begin by thanking Michelle Ballantyne for her kind comments about my officials who put on the demonstration yesterday. I asked them to do that because I felt that it would help to inform the debate and give members the opportunity to interact with questions. I appreciate her kindness in her comments about the way in which my officials interacted on that matter.
One of the points that Johann Lamont raised was that the Government had not followed the evidence and had not attempted to build consensus in this debate. The evidence that the Government followed was the evidence that we commissioned from the OECD when, in response to the fall in standards that was identified by the Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy, we invited the OECD to review Scottish education. As I said earlier, the OECD said:
“There needs to be a more robust evidence base available right across the system, especially about learning outcomes and progress.”
It is on the basis of that evidence and advice that we acted to address the issues.
Why was standardised assessment our response? It was because 29 out of the 32 local authorities were already undertaking some form of standardised assessment, albeit of different characters around the country. A 30th local authority, South Lanarkshire Council, was considering embarking on a form of standardised assessment but, when it heard that the Government was preparing to address the issue, it held back until the Government put its approach in place.
Mary Fee has just raised the concern of a teacher in Inverclyde about the application of the computer-based Scottish national standardised assessment. In Inverclyde, the local authority has been using an on-screen, computer-based, non-adaptive standardised assessment for many years. The difference between it and what I have put in place is that Inverclyde Council has been applying that twice during P1. The idea that the Scottish national standardised assessments have somehow been applied in a way that has fundamentally changed the way in which young people are assessed at the local level is therefore erroneous.
I go back to the point that I made earlier about impugning the motives of people who raise concerns. Do you have any idea why schoolteachers, parents and carers are expressing concern? If this is something that has been happening routinely all along, why are schoolteachers highlighting their concerns about the proposals?
I am not impugning anyone. It is not my—[
I am grateful to Mr Scott for his enthusiastic support for that remark. I do not impugn people’s motives. I am facing a challenge here. Parliament is holding us to account about the need to improve standards in our schools. When the Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy came out in 2015, we were not able to identify where the weaknesses in performance were around the country, because there was not consistent data, which is exactly what the OECD highlighted. That is why we pulled together the 29 out of 32 local authorities that were undertaking different forms of assessment and set up a standardised assessment right across the country. That was a pretty logical move.
“Data is incredibly detailed and personalised. Feedback will be very useful in looking for next steps. Some of our data showed areas of weakness we hadn’t expected and some showed strengths, especially in P1, that we hadn’t expected.”
We can all point to feedback from teachers, but, of course, what people will say varies around the country.
I hear people talking about my arrogance in this debate. I have adapted and changed these assessments. I have not said that everything is perfect. Last year, I commissioned a user survey and I commissioned feedback from practitioners. That led to significant changes in the assessments with regard to the replenishment of questions, the improvement of question design, the updating of practice assessment and the provision of advice and exemplification with regard to classroom management, and also in relation to the establishment of a P1 practitioner forum to hear more feedback from the teaching profession as we work through the assessments year by year.
Of course, the reason why we need to do that is to address the comments that were made the other day by the president of ADES, who said:
“We suffer too much in education from decisions being made too quickly—my ask is for politicians to pause and allow us the time to evaluate” the effectiveness of the assessments.
On the point about the tests being amended, I have real concerns about the compatibility of these tests with neurodevelopmental disorders. Will the cabinet secretary undertake to have the tests assessed for their compatibility with dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder and other neurodevelopmental disorders?
Fundamentally, the teacher’s judgment comes into play here. It was not 100 percent of young people who took part in the assessment; it was 94 percent. That is evidence of people in the teaching profession exercising the type of professional judgment that I would ask them to when they think that it is not appropriate for a particular child to do the test.
Earlier, Mr Johnson raised the issue of the connection to and the compatibility with play. I understand the model of education that he talked about being used in his child’s school in Edinburgh—I am very familiar with it. That is what the curriculum for excellence is designed to do. However, I remind Mr Johnson that we are talking about play for learning and, at some point, we have to assess the learning that young people are undertaking in order to satisfy ourselves that they have reached the early level that will then give us the foundation and the platform for them to move on to first level.
The last comment that I will make relates to some of what has been said about the international advice and evidence. Pasi Sahlberg, an eminent global educationist who originates from Finland, is a man for whom I have huge respect and whose writings I follow assiduously. This morning, he said:
“P1 assessment in Scotland is not a standardised test. It is a diagnostic tool to support teachers’ professional decisions and judgement. We are critical” of
“high-stakes standardised testing, not this one.”
I am afraid that I cannot. Mr Gray knows that I am generous in my interventions, but I have reached the maximum time that I can speak for.
That is information from eminent educationists that demonstrates that the Scottish Government has taken the considered steps to support professional judgment, and I ask Parliament to support those measures today.
After this morning’s meeting of the Education and Skills Committee, I did not think that I could be any more depressed about this Government’s attitude to education, but I have felt depressed throughout this afternoon. It is pretty disingenuous of the cabinet secretary to get up at the 11th hour and give a very gentle and measured talk-through of some of the points in the debate, given that he has spent the past week trying to shout down opposition, an approach that has been adopted by every one of his back benchers, who refused to take interventions on specific points.
I remember the member taking the first intervention, not answering the specific point that I raised and refusing to continue the debate and address some of the further issues that have emerged around these tests.
It is very disappointing that, having been promised a facts-based debate, we have instead spent most of the time politicking as usual. I am proud to say that the Conservatives are willing to listen, evaluate the evidence and change our minds. We are not embarrassed to listen to the evidence and the many voices in Scottish education and take a measured and appropriate view. We are not saying that all standardised assessments should be scrapped; we are saying that primary 1 is not the appropriate point at which to start such assessment. The cabinet secretary would do well to listen to that point.
We have offered our support on reforming education not because it represents some political move or calculated agenda but because we think that educational reform is important. We have been arguing for it for years.
Does Mr Mundell understand the degree of doubt that we have in our minds about his commitment to educational reform? Last week, his leader asked for more information about schools and, today, the Conservatives are advancing the argument for less information about schools. Does he not see the natural inconsistency in the arguments that the Conservative Party has deployed and understand why SNP members believe that the Conservatives are using the debate as a political hit on the Government?
I will let the cabinet secretary finish shouting. That point says it all. On the most important issue and top priority for our country, the SNP and the Government start from the point of view of thinking that everything is about political positioning and gestures, instead of looking at the evidence.
On the substance of the cabinet secretary’s point, there is a considerable difference between asking for useful information that has an evidence base behind it, and pursuing—hell bent and at all costs—a set of assessments that has no rigorous evidence behind them.
We heard questions this morning. I know that Michelle Ballantyne was impressed to see the assessments, but I would have been much more impressed if the cabinet secretary had made available before the debate the robust evidence that exists in order to prove that the assessments work and tell us something useful.
I hear from teachers that there is a number of fundamental flaws in the system that is being introduced. Smart children are clicking on random options in order to speed up the process of getting through the test. People like myself who suffer from dyspraxia and dyslexia find that the tests do not work for them—they do not assess their potential or their capacity. Some of Maureen Watt’s comments were quite offensive and disingenuous to parents, and they were not based on evidence. As far as I am aware, the study to which she referred is not about the type of tests that are being used in classrooms in Scotland.
If we want to talk about politics, negativity and unpleasantness, we should note that, throughout the debate, Maree Todd has been shouting at me across the chamber about Westminster and what is happening in England and Wales. If we are having a facts-based debate, I afford her this opportunity, if she wants to take it, to explain to the chamber the different choices on the founding principles and the curriculum that have been taken in England and Wales from those that have been taken in Scotland.
Forgive me for being sceptical when the Conservatives come to the chamber and paint themselves as the champions for Scotland’s children and the champions for upholding the will of this Parliament. Parliament made it very clear that universal credit—[
—is harming the children in this country, and that the two-child cap and welfare reform are sending our children to school hungry.
What are the UK Government policies on welfare reform doing to improve attainment in our schools—the poverty-related attainment gap, to give it its full title? [
There we go, ladies and gentlemen. That is how we build consensus around education and have a facts-based debate. [
.] If we are going to have a facts-based debate, I will explain to Maree Todd that in England and Wales, they have gone for a much more formal early-years process based on knowledge. Tests are therefore assessing the start of that formal education process. That has been decided on in England and Wales—rightly or wrongly. I remind the Scottish Government that education is devolved and has been separate here in Scotland since before devolution. We managed perfectly well under previous systems without these assessments and a ttainment in many areas was far better. [
Rather than digging in deeper and trying to tell us that the evidence is on its side, it is time for the Scottish Government to start listening, slow down a little bit, and assess whether its own assessments are working.