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Upstart response to independent review of P1 tests

We are naturally disappointed at the conclusions of the Review. We are particularly concerned that it focuses largely on the content and delivery of the SNSA, rather than its wider effects on pedagogical practices in Primary 1.

As the Review points out, one ‘moment’ of national assessment does not seem particularly significant, and improvements can be made to the content and delivery over time. However – as has been shown by the widespread concern about the P1 tests – national assessment is a high stakes educational policy. Internationally, wherever national assessments have been introduced, they have led to the phenomenon known as ‘teaching to the test’.

Upstart is not opposed to national assessment per se. As stated in our submission to the Review, we would be in favour of an age-appropriate assessment tool at P1, such as the Early Development Instrument, which is used to assess the overall development of five-year-olds in Canada and Australia. If all P1 teachers were to ‘teach to’ a developmentally appropriate test, it would help ensure developmentally appropriate practice throughout the Early Level of Curriculum for Excellence.

The Early Level (for children aged three to six) is based on developmental principles. This involves supporting each child individually in terms of their overall development (physical, social, emotional and cognitive), with a view to providing a strong foundation for long-term educational success, and also for long-term health and well-being. It is the type of pedagogical practice deemed appropriate for this age group in high-performing countries around the world, where the school starting age is six or seven.

However this approach to Early Level has not yet been adopted in P1 in most Scottish primary schools. Due to Scotland’s historically early school starting age, the Scottish public (and indeed the educational establishment) has a cultural attachment to a very early start on the three Rs. Upstart is so strongly opposed to national assessments of literacy and numeracy at P1 because they will consolidate this cultural attachment, undermining recent moves towards play-based pedagogy for this age group.

The P1 SNSA (linked to age-related benchmarks for attainment) are already affecting the expectations of local authority officials and parents, creating pressure on schools to focus on teaching the 3Rs at an age when children’s ‘readiness’ for skills-based teaching in these subjects (especially literacy) is hugely variable.

In the ‘Play Not Tests document’ (see, with which Upstart launched our campaign against the P1 SNSA, we explained how explicit teaching of the three Rs before the age of seven has no long term advantage but, due to its effect on classroom practice (including ‘behaviour management strategies’), can have adverse effects on children’s long-term social and emotional development. It particularly disadvantages P1 children who are not yet developmentally ready for formal learning.

Upstart is also astounded by the Review’s conclusion that the P1 SNSA is compatible with a play-based pedagogy in early years education. Genuine play-based pedagogy is based on supporting children as appropriate to their developmental level, irrespective of their chronological age. It is therefore, by its very nature, incompatible with SNSA, which is concerned with assessing children against age-related standards in literacy and numeracy.

Please do not read this response as suggesting that Upstart Scotland objects to the explicit teaching of literacy and numeracy skills in primary schools, or to formative assessment against age-related standards for older children. Our objection is to the application of this educational ideology when children are only five years old. All current international research suggests that a ‘developmental’ approach for the under-sevens not only leads to better long-term educational outcomes than the UK, but is also linked to higher levels of childhood well-being.

In the light of significant changes to children’s lifestyles over recent decades, Upstart believes it is now vital to provide a relationship-centred, play-based ‘kindergarten stage’ for Scotland’s under-sevens, and will continue to work towards this aim.