by Sue Palmer
Due to gagging clauses in their contracts of employment, teachers are prevented from speaking our publicly about education policy. However, in 2019, the government conducted an anonymous survey of P1 teachers’ opinions on them. It was not publicised, probably because 66% of respondents were critical of the tests, and only 4% welcomed them (the rest were non-committal).
2. Primary head teachers don’t want them.
In a 2021 survey by the AHDS (Association of Heads and Deputies in Scotland) around 32% of head teachers said the tests were useful, while nearly 46% said they were not (the rest were neutral).
In 2018, a coalition of national organisations campaigned against the P1 tests – all continue to oppose them. They include:
- the Educational Institute of Scotland (the major teaching union, which recently condemned the spending of another £17 million pounds on development of the SNSA)
- Children in Scotland (the umbrella organisation for children’s charities)
- Play Scotland
- Connect (Scotland’s major parent-teacher organisation)
- ACE-Aware Nation (a campaign to raise awareness of adverse childhood experiences).
During a parliamentary debate in 2018, all the opposition parties produced cogent arguments for scrapping the P1 SNSA [Scottish National Standardised Assessment]. The government relied on one key argument: that the SNSA had been developed in response to an OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development] recommendation in a 2015 report on Curriculum for Excellence. Not surprisingly, the government lost the debate … but they still kept the tests.
5. The OECD doesn’t recommend them.
In 2021 the OECD published another report on Curriculum for Excellence. This report criticised the SNSA and, at its launch, the authors suggested returning to the sampling assessment method previously used in Scotland. This method is reliable, more efficient, less disruptive for schools and does not include P1.
6. Experts in primary assessment say they are unreliable…
…and therefore useless in providing the ‘baseline’ information which the government believes will help them to check on children’s subsequent progress. When the P1 SNSA was introduced, the Scottish government cited the work of two international experts in its support. Both immediately issued press statements denying any support whatsoever (see quotes below).
Since over 20% of P1 pupils didn’t sit the tests last year (due to one LA opting out and another leaving it up to schools whether to use them) their reliability in determining ‘national standards’ is even further undermined.
7. They are incompatible with Scotland’s practice guidance for Primary 1.
Realising the Ambition: Being Me (2020) covers early childhood care and education from birth to the end of Curriculum for Excellence’s Early Level. Primary 1 is part of Early Level so this practice guidance applies to them.
Realising the Ambition is based on sound principles of child development, meaning that children should be supported to learn at their own developmental level, which varies widely in the under sevens. Many five-year-olds are not developmentally ‘ready’ for the three Rs – they need longer to develop important physical, social and emotional foundational skills, such as self-regulation. A developmental approach is completely at odds with age-related standardised assessment of specific literacy and numeracy skills.
National standardised testing inevitably leads to ‘teaching to the test’ and there is considerable pressure from most Scottish local authorities to coach all children towards the literacy and numeracy ‘benchmarks’ (targets) linked to the P1 test.
As pointed out in (7) above, many children are not yet developmentally ‘ready’ for this kind of academic learning, e.g. the youngest in the class, children with various kinds of developmental delay and many (perhaps most) children from disadvantaged homes. Research shows that, in the case of these children, any immediate gains from literacy and numeracy coaching ‘wash out’ within a few years.
What’s more, as a result of too-early pressure to perform beyond their competence, many children become discouraged and lose interest in school. They are also more likely to suffer from emotional, social and mental health problems as time goes on.
9. They will widen the attainment gap.
The P1 tests were among a raft of measures designed to close the attainment gap between children from low and high income households. However, as shown in (8) above, they are highly likely to damage the long-term chances of children from disadvantaged homes. Indeed, despite ferocious emphasis on literacy and numeracy over the last few years, the attainment gap has not significantly decreased. It is likely to become wider than ever in the wake of the pandemic. Research shows that young children’s development has been particularly affected by the pandemic (especially that of children from disadvantaged homes – see this webinar, starting at about 9.40mins in).
10. Post-Covid, P1 teachers should be concentrating on children’s development and wellbeing – not on coaching them for academic tests.
Even before Covid, Scotland had a ‘child and adolescent mental health crisis’. Although emotional and mental health problems may not develop until children are older, they are often associated with anxiety during early childhood . This is one reason for international recognition that early childhood education should concentrate on healthy all-round development and wellbeing. In most of the world, therefore, formal schooling does not begin until children are six or seven, and national standardised tests before the age of eight are very rare. Even Singapore, famous for its rigorous system of assessment, has scrapped national tests for the under eights since 2018.
In today’s post-Covid world, P1 children have spent most of their early childhood surrounded by anxious adults, many have been through traumatic family experiences and, due to all the restrictions, they have all missed out on experiences necessary for healthy physical and mental health. Research recently showed that adventurous play is particularly helpful for reducing childhood anxiety.
The overall message of academic research is that young children do not need rushing into the three Rs. They do need time and space for developmental catch-up – learning through play, stories, art, music, drama, time in the outdoors and fun with their friends. (This doesn’t mean ‘holding children back’: any child who’s keen to learn to read and write would still be supported to do so).
This ‘play-based’ developmental approach supports the entitlements children have through the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was passed unanimously by The Scottish Parliament in March 2021. Hence Upstart’s campaign for a rights-focused, relationship-centred, play-based kindergarten stage for three- to seven-year-olds.