Primary 1 Standardised Assessments

– in the Scottish Parliament on 11th June 2019.

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Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

The next item of business is a statement by John Swinney, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, on an update on primary 1 standardised assessments.

The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

On 19 September 2018, Parliament debated the Scottish national standardised assessments and agreed to a motion that called for two distinct actions: a halt to P1 assessments, and for the Scottish Government to consider evidence on how best to progress assessment of pupils in P1. I understand the views that were expressed by Parliament and am alive to the concerns that have been expressed by members and others about the P1 assessments.

In the light of the parliamentary motion, I judged that the appropriate response was to reconsider the evidence, and that if we were to stop P1 assessments, the decision should be based on independent expert educational advice.

I therefore commissioned an independent review of the Scottish national standardised assessments in primary 1. The purposes of the review were to take a clear and reasoned look at the evidence, and to provide an informed way forward. The review was to have sufficient scope to endorse the criticisms that were voiced on 19 September and, should doing so be what the evidence directed, to recommend an end to SNSAs taking place in P1. I set out the approach clearly to Parliament on 25 October 2018.

Having taken advice from Her Majesty’s chief inspector of education, I commissioned David Reedy to conduct that review. Mr Reedy possesses the necessary educational experience and expertise to have secured professional credibility for the role. He was, for example, co-director of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust from 2013 to 2017, and he has served as both general secretary and president of the United Kingdom Literacy Association. As someone who had not been involved in the debate on SNSAs until that point, he was also perfectly positioned to apply the required objective rigour to the review.

Between January and March this year, David Reedy gathered information by conducting stakeholder interviews, inviting written feedback, and examining the submissions to and findings from the P1 practitioner forum and the Education and Skills Committee’s inquiry into the Scottish national standardised assessments. Crucially, he visited schools to observe the SNSA being delivered to primary 1 children in real time. The review could not have been fully or meaningfully informed had it not been possible for Mr Reedy to witness at first hand children undertaking the assessments, and to talk to the teachers involved.

The Scottish Government gave clear advice to schools in September that they should continue to implement the assessments as they had been, pending the findings of the independent review that had been commissioned to re-examine the evidence, at Parliament’s behest. Continued delivery of the assessments was encouraged for reasons of consistency and to guard against the creation of an information vacuum, and to ensure that the independent review considered evidence that was based on the second year of delivery of the assessment.

The review was also undertaken with the recognition that feedback had already been gathered and acted upon to improve the system, particularly in relation to P1, following the first year. There would have been little value in examining a position from which the SNSAs had already moved on.

During that phase, 142 P1 teachers, 131 senior school staff and more than 50 wider stakeholders were involved. I thank everyone who took the time to submit comments, or who agreed to meet David Reedy, or to demonstrate the assessments to him. Their contributions and the sharing of their views were of the utmost importance in helping Mr Reedy to form his conclusions. The conclusions have been published today, alongside a set of recommendations for the Scottish Government and for local authorities.

Having been asked explicitly to consider whether the primary 1 assessments should be stopped, Mr Reedy’s answer in his independent review is that they should not. Rather, he concludes that it would be beneficial for the assessments to continue, albeit with important modifications and the establishment of additional guidance and support for practitioners, to ensure that the assessments deliver their intended value as low-stakes diagnostic assessments. Mr Reedy acknowledges that the assessments can provide an additional source of nationally consistent objective information about where a child is performing strongly, and where he or she might require further support.

I do not suggest that the review has delivered an unqualified green light to the Scottish Government in terms of P1 assessments. Clearly, the review makes important recommendations about improvement, so I am determined to take the valuable learning in Mr Reedy’s review and to act on it. I will introduce the recommended modifications and safeguards: first, in order to further improve the assessment experience for P1s; secondly, to strengthen understanding of the purpose of the assessments; and, thirdly, to ensure that practitioners see the benefit of the information that the assessments provide.

Fundamentally, however, the key review finding that Mr Reedy has articulated and the key message that should be taken from his report is this:

“P1 SNSA has potential to play a significant role in informing and enhancing teachers’ professional judgements and should be continued”.

I was reassured to read that Mr Reedy identified that there is

“scant evidence of children becoming upset when taking the P1 SNSA”,

but I acknowledge the significance of his observation that the attitudes of the people who deliver the assessments can influence children’s confidence. We must ensure that practitioners are appropriately supported and equipped to deliver assessments such that they are perceived positively by the children who undertake them.

Mr Reedy also considered the compatibility of the assessments with a play-based approach to learning. The review makes a clear and helpful distinction between a pedagogical approach to play-based learning in the early years—which the Scottish Government fully endorses, and which is at the heart of curriculum for excellence at the early level—and what David Reedy describes as a “moment of assessment”. The review confirmed that it is eminently possible—and, indeed, valuable—to assess children in the early years through diagnostic means such as the SNSA, while remaining true to the principles of play-based learning. The report states that

“There are strong examples of schools where headteachers and teachers operate a play-based approach and find no incompatibility between that and the P1 SNSA.”

It is evident that the need for a shared understanding of the aims, purpose and value of the SNSA drives many of the review’s recommendations. Today, I am happy to commit to redoubling our efforts in relation to communications and engagement with practitioners and all stakeholders, to clarifying our messages, to strengthening our guidance and to ensuring wider access to SNSA training.

Mr Reedy also identified important reservations regarding the length of the literacy assessment and its alignment to the benchmarks. Again, I accept the recommendation to review that assessment and to explore with ACER—the company that developed the assessments—the potential for reducing the number of questions that are presented to primary 1 children.

I will take a moment to reflect on wider scrutiny of the SNSAs that has run in parallel with the review. As members will be aware, the Education and Skills Committee has reported on its inquiry into SNSAs. The P1 practitioner forum that I convened last December has produced a number of recommendations for enhancing the P1 assessment experience. In addition, our own annual user review, which is intended to feed into our cycle of continuous improvement of the SNSAs, has produced interim findings ahead of the end of the school session.

I thank the committee and the P1 forum, which is chaired by Professor Sue Ellis, for their thoughtful and detailed consideration of the issues. Their reports contain valuable suggestions for ways in which to improve aspects of communications around and implementation of the SNSAs. It is important that no report recommends scrapping the assessments. I believe that that reflects the evidence that Parliament required us to consider, and provides the basis and the rationale for continuing to apply SNSAs, as the independent review recommends.

Should further vindication be needed, I direct members’ attention to the learner feedback that we have gathered during this academic year from a question that is in the SNSA system. The feedback is that 91 per cent of primary 1 children who have undertaken the assessments enjoyed the experience. That statistic represents the views of the children themselves.

I accept that there is work to be done, but I believe that we can, with the improvements that are proposed, move forward in the correct direction. Today, I published the Scottish Government’s individual responses to Mr Reedy’s independent review, the Education and Skills Committee’s inquiry report and the P1 practitioner forum’s recommendations, along with a progress report on the SNSA user review for 2018-19.

In addition, given the clear overlap in focus and read-across between a number of areas that are raised in the various reports, I intend to publish a summary that draws together all the actions that the Scottish Government will undertake over the coming months. I have published a draft of that action plan today. The draft identifies eight overarching themes for actions that are to be taken in response to all the reports’ recommendations. We will take the draft to the Scottish education council for review and feedback, and we will work with practitioners to agree the details of our approach to implementing the recommendations, before producing a final action plan at the start of the new school year.

As Parliament requested, I have reconsidered the evidence. As we approach the end of the second year of delivery, we now have a far clearer picture of the views of P1 children and of their teachers to the assessments. An impartial review has confirmed the value of the SNSAs. A constructive action plan for enhancing the assessments, consolidating their value and delivering on their potential has been laid out.

I hope that members will join me in accepting Mr Reedy’s findings and in focusing, as we must, on delivering an education system in Scotland that raises attainment for all, closes the attainment gap, and enables all children and young people to fulfil their potential.

The Presiding Officer:

I remind members that we are very pushed for time this afternoon. After the opening questioners for each party have made their opening remarks, I would like all questions and answers to be succinct and to the point.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I thank the cabinet secretary for his statement and for a copy of the independent review.

The cabinet secretary stated that, on 19 September last year, the Parliament voted to halt the P1 tests and to review the evidence. I remind him that the Parliament and the Opposition parties did that because we were listening to the many concerns that were being expressed by primary teachers, parents groups and teaching unions, all of whom told us that there was not sufficient evidence to prove that the tests were in the best educational interests of primary 1 pupils. Those concerns were echoed at the Education and Skills Committee on 30 January by other organisations such as Upstart Scotland and Children in Scotland.

My three questions to the cabinet secretary therefore relate to evidence. What specific educational evidence has the cabinet secretary seen that convinces him that he is right and others wrong when it comes to promoting this type of formal testing of five-year-olds as necessary and appropriate, particularly in light of the fact that the Reedy review has not undertaken any in-depth analysis of the evidence from other countries that do not start formal tests as early as P1?

Secondly, in light of the Parliament voting against the P1 tests, why, in mid-April this year, did the cabinet secretary choose to announce modifications to the tests before waiting for the full review to be completed?

Thirdly, the cabinet secretary said in his statement:

“There would have been little value in examining a position from which the SNSAs had already moved on”.

I do not understand why he made that point when his mid-April announcement was doing the exact opposite.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

David Reedy’s review has done exactly what Parliament asked us to do, which was to look at the educational evidence on this question. That was the basis of my judgment. I am interested only in whether there is educational value here.

The Reedy report covers a lot of information, but one of its key points is the important assistance that the assessments provide in moderation across schools in Scotland. They enable teachers to be confident about the judgment that they are exercising about the progress of young people, given the fact that, for the first time under curriculum for excellence, the Scottish national standardised assessments give them an assessment that is related to curriculum for excellence, and the confidence that young people are reaching the appropriate level that is envisaged in the early level of the curriculum. David Reedy has spoken to many organisations and practitioners, some of which Liz Smith mentioned, and has seen practice in place in coming to that evidenced report.

The second point is about the P1 practitioner forum. It was important for me to respond as swiftly as possible to the views of practitioners in a body that I had established so that I could hear practitioners’ views. If practitioners believe that there are ways in which the assessments could be enhanced, we should take them up at the earliest possible opportunity.

Liz Smith’s third point is important. In September last year, I accepted that, if specific educational issues about the P1 standardised assessments had to be addressed, we should address them at the earliest possible opportunity. That is precisely why I have taken the actions that I have taken.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

I thank the cabinet secretary for early sight of his statement.

The cabinet secretary says that the review does exactly what Parliament told him to do, but, of course, it does not. Parliament told him to stop P1 testing. It might be that the Reedy review does not say that, but it says that the tests need to have a clear rationale and, obviously, they do not.

The review says that the tests must not and cannot be aggregated to draw general conclusions or to compare schools or local authorities, but the Scottish Government has repeatedly claimed that they can be. The review says that the administration of the tests must be flexible, but we know that 80 per cent of P1 tests were administered at the same time of year. The Reedy review says that the P1 tests must be changed to align with curriculum for excellence, because clearly they do not.

The review might say that the tests have potential, but its evidence says that Parliament’s concerns back in September were well founded. What gives the Deputy First Minister the right to traduce those concerns, to ignore that decision and to defy Parliament’s will?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I have accepted that there has to be a clear rationale about the assessments. David Reedy reinforces the argument that I advanced to the committee that they are assessments with a diagnostic purpose—their purpose is to assist teachers and pupils in identifying the progress that requires to be made. I have accepted that there needs to be a clear rationale, which needs to be embedded in the assessments.

Secondly, Iain Gray said that the assessments are not related to curriculum for excellence. I have to disagree with him on that point, and Mr Reedy does not substantiate that point in his report either. David Reedy has said that the literacy assessment would benefit from being shortened, and that is exactly what we will explore with the company involved.

Throughout all this, I have been interested in the educational arguments for standardised assessments. As I said in the first paragraph of my statement, in September Parliament voted for a halt to P1 assessments. However, it then asked us to consider the evidence about how best to progress the assessment of pupils in P1. I took a decision—which I reported to Parliament in October—to encourage the assessments to take their course to give us a second year of evidence. I then commissioned David Reedy to undertake the review to give us that evidence, which I now present to Parliament. The evidence says that there is an educational benefit to the assessments and that, although their purpose should be clarified, they should be maintained—that is the Government’s intention.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

I thank the Deputy First Minister for his statement and accompanying papers. Although the Government’s primary objective for the tests is for them to inform teacher judgment, Parliament has still not been presented with compelling evidence that the P1 tests usefully do that. We have, however, heard concerns from teachers, parents and education and child development experts about the negative effects of the tests and the confusion surrounding their introduction.

When giving evidence to the Education and Skills Committee, the Deputy First Minister first claimed that the tests are formative, not summative. Later that same morning, he stated that the tests are somehow both formative and summative. Given that he has been unable to clearly explain the purpose of the standardised tests, how does he expect teachers and parents, who opposed P1 testing from the start, to have any confidence in a policy that the Government refuses to drop?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

First, I am accepting today that there is a need to strengthen the rationale for the assessments. That point came out of the Education and Skills Committee’s inquiry, and I am happy to accept it.

The second issue that Mr Greer raised is about the nature of how the assessments are described, and he accurately reflects the exchange that he and I had at committee. However, I want to put it into a little bit of context. I was asked whether the tests are formative or summative, and I said that they are formative, for all the reasons that I have just explained to Iain Gray. I also accepted the point—it is simply an acceptance of reality—that, if all the numbers are added up, they inevitably become summative. However, that is not their purpose. That was simply an honest answer to a question that I was asked at committee.

Let me be absolutely crystal clear with Parliament that they are formative assessments to inform teacher judgment, and I believe that they add a valuable component—particularly in relation to the question of moderation, about which I replied to Liz Smith—in supporting teachers in their professional judgment.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

I thank the cabinet secretary for his statement. Will he explain to Parliament why he hired an academic from the English educational regime that nationalists condemn, and from a country where high-stakes testing is the norm, to produce the arguments that he wanted? How many more reports is he planning for

Parliament to see, when teachers, unions, parent groups and this Parliament all said that he should halt the testing of four and five-year-old boys and girls?

Will he tell teachers in primary 1 what their workload will now be, given all the additional guidance that he has produced and the new action plan that he has announced today? What will be the increase in the workload and the bureaucracy that they face every day? If parliamentary democracy is so important, why is the Government so determined to press on with the tests when Parliament said, “Don’t do it”?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

First, I simply offered David Reedy’s independent credibility as a leading expert on questions of literacy as justification for recruiting a man of significant independent educational expertise who does not have an axe to grind on Scottish education. I simply invited an individual who has an academic track record to provide us with some independent evidence, and I place on the record my thanks to him for being prepared to do that.

Secondly, with regard to Tavish Scott’s points about primary 1 teachers’ workload, I am trying to make sure that teachers have the ability to rely upon a substantive assessment that will assist them in the crucial role of moderating the educational performance of young people. The steps were taken to make that as convenient, straightforward and accessible as possible for teachers in primary 1.

Thirdly, Tavish Scott supported a motion that called on us to halt the assessments, but also to consider the evidence. I have considered the evidence, and it says that our assessments are perfectly valid to be used as a rational contribution to assessment of the progress of young people. That is why I believe that it is important to implement the view that was taken by Parliament in the fashion that I have set out this afternoon.

The Presiding Officer:

All the parties have outlined their positions, so I ask for just questions from now on, please. I call Jenny Gilruth, to be followed by Alison Harris.

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

Given that the standardised assessments replaced what was already used in 28 of Scotland’s 32 local authorities, how will the Scottish Government ensure that they are not used in addition to those that existed previously, many of which were not benchmarked against curriculum for excellence?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

In the project, we have had excellent co-operation with our local authority partners, which have been involved in all the preparation of the standardised assessments. A limited number of local authorities are continuing with the assessments that they undertook previously in order to give them a consistency check for future years. On a temporary basis, that is an entirely reasonable proposition. However, the Scottish national standardised assessments are relevant to curriculum for excellence and they provide an opportunity for local authorities not to use other assessments that have not been related to curriculum for excellence.

We will work with our local authority partners through the actions that I have set out in the Scottish education council, in which local government is a full partner with us in progressing the issues.

Photo of Alison Harris Alison Harris Conservative

Despite the independent review, a survey in February this year revealed that 41 per cent of teachers disagreed that the tests were beginning to inform teaching and another 17 per cent were unsure. That is nearly 60 per cent of the teaching profession who disagreed or were unsure. In light of that, are the standardised tests really capable of delivering on their intended purpose of informing teaching?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I am not sure whether Alison Harris is one of the members who took up the opportunity to see a demonstration of the assessments. If she was, she will have seen the diagnostic information that is generated for every child. The feedback that I get from individual teachers is that that diagnostic information is quick and simple to consider and gives teachers an opportunity to judge whether the prevailing judgment is accurate or there are issues that require further investigation. That is the opportunity that the diagnostic assessment provides for teachers, and it gives the reassurance, which I raised in my answer to Liz Smith, that teachers will see a position that is relevant to what is expected in the early years of the curriculum, which is of benefit to the professional judgment of teachers.

Photo of Tom Arthur Tom Arthur Scottish National Party

Will the Deputy First Minister outline how standardised assessments at primary 1 can support teachers in closing the attainment gap in schools in my constituency of Renfrewshire South?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Because the diagnostic information readily identifies areas where young people may have challenges in their education performance, it will help teachers to undertake something that is increasingly happening in Scottish education, which is a relentless focus on closing that gap by identifying the obstacles that exist in young people’s education and supporting them to overcome them. That will apply in Mr Arthur’s constituency of Renfrewshire South and, because the assessments are available across the country and are related to curriculum of excellence, in all other areas as well.

Photo of Mary Fee Mary Fee Labour

David Reedy concludes that it would be beneficial for the tests to continue, albeit with important modifications and the establishment of additional guidance and support for practitioners. Will the cabinet secretary give some detail on the important modifications that are required and the timescale for implementation?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Perhaps the most important modification relates to the length of the literacy assessment. As a matter of urgency, we will discuss that with the company that is involved in design and delivery of that assessment, and I will be happy to keep Parliament informed on that point.

The other important modifications relate largely to the description and outline of the assessments’ purpose. Mr Reedy gives us a strong framework within which we can operate to ensure that at no stage could the assessments be viewed as high-stakes assessments. I am determined to ensure that they are, in fact, characterised as low-stakes diagnostic assessments.

Photo of Fulton MacGregor Fulton MacGregor Scottish National Party

Will the Deputy First Minister outline how the Scottish Government can ensure that all local authorities, including North Lanarkshire Council, integrate the standardised assessments with a play-based approach to learning for all primary 1 pupils?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I am anxious to separate out two issues that have become somewhat conjoined. One issue is the importance of a play-based curriculum for young people, which is at the heart of the early level of curriculum for excellence. Absolutely nothing in the statement that I have made today compromises that play-based curriculum.

David Reedy helpfully makes the distinction between a play-based curriculum and what he calls a “moment of assessment”. At some stage, assessment will be undertaken of children who are involved in a play-based curriculum, and David Reedy correctly characterises how that can be done through the Scottish national standardised assessments.

However, I make it absolutely crystal clear that the Government firmly believes that a play-based curriculum provides a vital foundation in how young people acquire their learning in the early stages of their educational development.

The Presiding Officer:

That concludes questions on the statement. I apologise to Johann Lamont, Oliver Mundell, Rona Mackay and John Mason, who have been unable to ask their questions. We are pushed for time this afternoon as we have two bills to consider.