AS the latest intake of primary ones toddle along to their first day at school next week, the littlest ones dwarfed by their jazzy new rucsacks, they’ll have another weight on their shoulders too. The weight of expectations added by the Scottish Government’s dastardly plan to make them sit tests.
Not for these five-year-olds a carefree school day of hopscotch, play-doh and ABCs. Instead, they’ll have to swap thumb-sucking for nail-biting and knuckle down for some “teaching to the test”. Not for Jack, Sophie, Lewis and Emily the chance to ease in gently with games and stories. Playtime will be rebranded as make-or-break-time, with hot houses instead of wendy houses and sink-or-swimming lessons at the local pool. After all, it’s never too early to start ruining your life chances.
Some people who know a lot about education are concerned about the introduction of standardised testing, particularly at P1 level, describing it as damaging and even dangerous. But these verdicts seem to be based in large part on how parents and teachers respond to testing regimes, rather than the children themselves.
Some people who know a lot about education are concerned about the introduction of standardised testing, particularly at P1 level, describing it as damaging and even dangerous
Sue Palmer is chair of the Upstart Scotland cmpaign, which persuasively argues that children under seven should attend kindergarten, not school. She warns that “overt pressure” to perform well in tests inhibits rather than promotes learning, and that a reward system based on “pats on the head” sets a dangerous precedent. But where exactly is this overt pressure coming from? And who will be administering these hypothetical pats?
Upstart points to a wealth of international evidence that suggests there’s no benefit to starting school at five. It cites results from Finland, Estonia and Switzerland, all of which have kindergarten systems, as proof that Scotland is out of step with nations that are performing better. But wait a minute – how do we know that children’s literacy levels even out in the long run? Surely it must be because someone, somewhere has carried out standarised tests?
Meanwhile, teaching union the EIS warns that the the “anxiety and narratives of failure” around testing will damage our youngest pupils at a time when they should be engaging in child-centred learning. The insinuation being that such an approach is fundamentally incompatible with the test-centred learning teachers will be forced to deliver when the new assessments are introduced.
In the English language, testing doesn’t just mean assessing – it also means to challenge, to put under strain
Perhaps part of the problem here is that in the English language, testing doesn’t just mean assessing – it also means to challenge, to put under strain. And thanks to historical precedents, many adults associate school tests with stress, segregation and selection. They think of the 11-plus, the entrance exam, of being promoted to a top set or relegated to the dunce’s corner. They attach moral meaning to the very process of testing, rather than the way in which test results are used. Fundamentally, it seems they simply do not trust the Scottish Government’s motives.
So why are the tests being introduced, and what safeguards will be in place to prevent the kind of mini meltdowns that risk putting primary ones off learning for life? Well, for a start there’s no suggestion that anyone will be patted on the head for doing well, or even be advised of their test result. The joint aims of the exercise are to help teachers, not parents, judge how their pupils are progressing and to provide consistent evidence about attainment across the country.
To say these are testing times for Education Secretary John Swinney is accurate in both senses of the word. He’s under mounting pressure to close the attainment gap, but a chorus of prominent opponents insist any attempt to measure said gap is harmful in itself. On one hand he’s being lobbied to reform early-years schooling, but on another he’s being told teachers will resist any attempts to introduce the kind of testing regime that might help prove not every child is ready for formal education at four or five.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that teachers fear they’ll be singled out for blame if their pupils fail to make the grade
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that teachers fear they’ll be singled out for blame if their pupils fail to make the grade – or, to put it in government-speak, to “achieve the relevant Curriculum for Excellence level for their stage”. But this, surely, is why testing in primary one is a crucial part of the new system. We already know (again, thanks to evidence based on testing) that the attainment gap between children from low-income and high-income households emerges early. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, by the age of five it is already between 10 and 13 months and the main determinant is not the school a child attends but the socio-economic status of their parents.
This isn’t to say that schools can’t make a difference or that pupils can’t catch up – it just means that any assessment of “what works” or what makes a “good school” needs to take into account what stage pupils were at when they arrived. This has to be an improvement on the status quo, where schools in affluent areas are regarded as superior simply because their pupils get good results in the a different set of standardised assessments.
Sitting a short test need not be an anxiety-inducing experience for a primary-one child, but if parents and teachers around them are determined to get in a flap about it then claims of damage and danger risk becoming self-fulfilling prophesies. The real test will be whether children feel supported in their endeavours. Let’s hope the adults pass.
A version of this article first appeared in The National.