by Patricia Anderson
I recently withdrew my son from taking the new primary one Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSAs). While I think the four key priorities of the National Improvement Framework (1) are admirable, the idea that testing in primary one will help to achieve them is misguided at best and detrimental at worst.
Let me be clear, I’m no helicopter parent. I didn’t withdraw my son because I want to try and micromanage his school experience or because I’m overprotective. I did it because I genuinely believe it is in the best interest of ALL children that these tests are scrapped. The results are already unreliable and, by withdrawing, they become unrepresentative too.
While I recognise that care has been taken to make them somewhat straight forward (children don’t know if they are getting the questions right or not and the questions adapt to the child’s level based on their previous answers), many children have still been upset while undertaking them, clearly not convinced that it’s just an innocent quiz (surely that sort of inferential deduction is worthy of merit in itself!).
I also must admit that they have been designed in a way to try to minimise the impact on teachers’ workload as they are self-correcting. However, what wasn’t factored in is the time taken away from teaching and learning for children to go along to a computer room in small groups to sit them (this is one of the various ways that children have undertaken them). This requires extra staffing and planning which takes time out of the classroom for more age-appropriate activities.
These issues aside, the main reason I am diametrically opposed to the new SNSAs in primary one is quite simply because national standardised testing at this age is developmentally inappropriate. It has been long established through research that children under seven develop at different rates and that, until then, the most powerful form of learning is through self-directed free play with other children outdoors, in the natural environment as much as possible. For five- and six-year-olds this would obviously be alongside other teacher-directed activities, as appropriate to individual children’s developmental level, but self-directed play is still essential.
Specifying measurable outcomes to be achieved by the end of primary one, when children range in age from under five and a half to almost six and a half, flies in the face of this evidence. It is unreliable at best and cruel at worst. Despite coming from a background of economic stability with no adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), even many ‘advantaged’ children will still not be as ready and able as others until they are nearly seven. And there is nothing abnormal or delayed about this.
Before the age of about seven, assessing progress in literacy and numeracy against age-related standards is therefore damaging, as it could stifle many children’s interest in these fundamentally important life skills if forced upon them before they are ready. It could also affect their mental health and well-being if they feel pressurised to complete them or less able in comparison to some of their peers.
I am not denying that there is already a gap between the literacy and numeracy abilities of children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those of their well-off peers when they start school, but rather than trying to drag children through arbitrary outcomes and experiences too soon, it’s a much more level playing field for everyone to start at seven. By then, children’s language and problem-solving skills have had more of a chance to develop through an extended time to play, ideally through the sort of kindergarten stage for three- to seven-year-olds proposed by Upstart Scotland, based on the successful Nordic models.
My instinctive response to such a suggestion before I learned about children’s early development was that any delay to starting school for those who already seem to be lagging behind would surely only widen the gap. Actually, the opposite is true. Children’s spoken language and oral comprehension skills have to have developed to a certain level before they can learn to read and write effectively. Trying to teach them these things before they are ready is slow, stressful for the child, teacher and parent and increases the risk of the child having mental health issues down the line.
I was a secondary English teacher for eleven years and would have loved to have had more children arriving in S1 who enjoyed reading and had better developed comprehension skills. And this isn’t the fault of their primaries as I have taught children whose literacy levels varied enormously despite having been in the same class for seven years. Sadly by the time they reach secondary school in Scotland, reading ages are, on average, two years behind a child’s actual age and by the time they turn 16 this has widened to three years (2).
We should aspire to model our education on that of Finland, which has a kindergarten stage until children start school at seven. They regularly top the international charts, despite having fewer days in the school year, fewer hours in the school day and play breaks as often as every 45 minutes! In 2016 Finland was ranked the most literate nation in the world and in March this year it came top in the United Nation’s World Happiness Report. Clever and happy people – just imagine!
It was also irrelevant to me whether my son would have done brilliantly or poorly in this test. His teacher spends five hours a day, five days a week with him. The school already knows his strengths and weaknesses in literacy and numeracy and how to help him progress. They know if he needs additional support or if he might have a condition to be diagnosed. They certainly didn’t put in a request for a robot to spend forty-five minutes asking him questions out of context, so it could summarise on a one-sheet print-out everything they had observed and understood about him holistically in ten months, using all their higher order thinking skills, experience and professional training. I certainly know which perspective I value most!
I believe the damaging impact of these tests will actually be felt more keenly next year. Now that teachers have seen them in action, they will undoubtedly feel pressure to prepare their primary one classes for them next year as they will inevitably feel accountable for their results (even though policy makers have said this won’t happen). I am convinced that this will lead to a narrowing of the curriculum when studies show that, again counter-intuitively, literacy skills develop best when they are not focused on as a skill on their own but developed through the acquisition of general knowledge. This has been proven in the USA where reading levels have not improved since 1998 despite a greater focus on teaching comprehension skills and the use of standardised testing. The gap between children from wealthy and poor backgrounds has actually widened there too! (2)
Next year’s primary ones, their parents, teachers and headteachers will all benefit if these assessments are ditched: children won’t need to feel judged before they are ready; parents won’t need to feel pressured to prepare them; teachers won’t need to narrow the curriculum, feel undermined or under scrutiny and headteachers won’t need to keep their opinions about them to themselves while they are forced to ensure they are completed. If this doesn’t happen then I am convinced that in ten years’ time mental ill-health amongst teenagers in our secondary schools will be even more of a crisis than it is now.
At a glance, baseline testing for five year olds seems like a sensible suggestion. ‘What’s wrong with establishing the level someone is working at so that ‘progress’ can be measured down the line? Surely it can only help to improve education and benefit children?’ I hear you ask. And indeed, there are many times in life when intervening early to prevent rather than cure is completely logical and the right thing to do. However, WE NEED A MINDSET SHIFT when it comes to this particular context. We don’t fret over the varied ages at which babies learn to walk, even when this can range from about 9 – 18 months. It would be a waste of time to assess their walking skills at 13 months as we know some of them just aren’t ready yet and will do it in their own time without intervention. This is how we need to perceive ‘learning’ till age seven – it is completely normal for it to happen at different rates and the vast majority of children will get there naturally in the end on their own terms – it’s not fair to try to measure a child’s ability at something before they’ve had enough time to fully develop the capacity to do it.
Our historically early school starting age and long-standing checklists of targets to be achieved before age seven have normalised these things in our culture. Even many adults who have had poor school experiences themselves have been known to state that being measured and judged so early on ‘didn’t do me any harm’. But it did and it does.
It is much more difficult to convince people in a snapshot headline of the value of play than of the value of tests. Baseline tests for primary ones are much more palatable and seemingly logical than the benefits of play, which are difficult to monitor statistically. However, play is absolutely essential for building the foundations for the ability to learn well. It fosters children’s development of decision-making, negotiation and people-management skills as well as their emotional intelligence, creativity and problem-solving skills amongst others. Interestingly, these are the very skills that the World Economic Forum anticipates will be the most important in future workplaces! (3)
The evidence is clear from countries that have developed their education systems based on the research findings of child development experts. We must educate politicians and the wider public on the need to embrace the mindset shift that is required in order to prioritise play over tests for the under sevens. This will result in better attainment and better wellbeing for our children in the long run and is the best means of meeting the key priorities of the National Improvement Framework.
If our policymakers can learn this, then they will have passed the ultimate test to prove they are truly committed to closing the gap.
- KEY PRIORITIES OF THE NATIONAL IMPOVEMENT FRAMEWORK
- Improvement in attainment, particularly in literacy and numeracy;
- Closing the attainment gap between the most and least disadvantaged children;
- Improvement in children and young people’s health and wellbeing; and
- Improvement in employability skills and sustained, positive school leaver destinations for all young people.
(Illustrations are taken from our recently released video.)