Plans to use standardised testing to close attainment gap lead to league table fears

Written by: Sam Phipps | Published:
Tables threat? The Scottish Parliamentary building in Edinburgh. The SNP is to reveal more details of its plans for a National Improvement Framework for Schools and standardised testing at primary level when it publishes its Programme for Government

The prospect of standardised testing as a tool to help close the attainment gap has drawn criticism from teachers, who say it would fail to make a positive difference and lead to "flawed" league tables.

First minister Nicola Sturgeon has promised to make the widening disparity between pupils from poorer and richer backgrounds the priority of her SNP administration after UCAS figures showed that only
9.7 per cent of those from the most disadvantaged areas had won a place at university this summer, unchanged from last year.

This compares with 17 per cent in England, 13.9 per cent in Northern Ireland, and 15.5 per cent in Wales. In the least deprived parts of Scotland, more than a third of young people had been accepted at university.

League tables would not be a goal of standardised testing in Scotland's primary schools, Ms Sturgeon said, but she admitted freedom of information might make it impossible to prevent.

League tables and national tests for students aged from five to 14 were axed in Scotland around 12 years ago.

Ms Sturgeon said: "I am not taking an ideological approach on this … if something can be shown to me to work, I'll be happy to consider it, which is one of the reasons why we need more information about primary school pupil performance."

Speaking at the Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh earlier this month, Ms Sturgeon said that a new National Improvement Framework for Schools would "allow us to measure clearly where we're succeeding and where we still need to do more".

She said that 30 out of 32 councils already use assessment for primary and lower secondary pupils but their systems differ, making it hard to form a national picture on attainment.

The SNP is expected to reveal more details on the plans and their implications for primary and secondary schools when it sets out its Programme for Government next week.

Ms Sturgeon said: "Standardised assessment helps teachers – it provides useful information to support their own judgement of children's progress. But many local authorities use different systems. That makes it much more difficult to get a clear and consistent picture of progress. That's why we are now developing a National Improvement Framework.

"The basic purpose of the improvement framework will be to provide clarity on what we are seeking to achieve and allow us to measure clearly where we're succeeding and where we still need to do more. By doing that, it will enable us to raise standards more quickly."

However, Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said any return to a national system that uses standardised tests as a benchmark was untenable and would do nothing to raise standards.

"It would inevitably lead to teaching to the test and the construction of flawed and misleading league tables – the very approach that Curriculum for Excellence, which the first minister has taken time to praise, sought to move away from."

The EIS would be happy to engage in discussions regarding the best use of assessment data within the National Improvement Framework, he added. "However, we need to be cautious over placing too much emphasis on any single measure of performance – teachers use a range of assessment approaches to support their professional judgement."

The NASUWT is also concerned. General secretary Chris Keates said: "The introduction of league tables would do nothing to help achieve the aims of the Scottish government's Attainment Challenge and would only add to the stress and excessive workload currently consuming the teaching profession.

"There is nothing intrinsically wrong with testing. It already takes place in schools across Scotland. It's the use to which the tests will be put which is the problem."

Elsewhere in her address, Ms Sturgeon also announced awards from a £100 million attainment fund to improve literacy, numeracy and wellbeing in disadvantaged communities.

Labour's education spokesman, Iain Gray, said eight years of SNP government had failed to address the attainment gap.

"It's just not right that three quarters of S2 pupils from the poorest backgrounds don't have the counting skills they need. A child starting high school this term will have spent every year of their education under the SNP government. Instead of yet another speech from the first minister, it's time the SNP government actually did something to close the gap between rich and poor in Scotland's schools."

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said big cuts to college courses had also blocked another route to university.


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