National testing to be introduced in Scots schools

Nicola Sturgeon has announced that national testing will be introduced in Scotland's schools. Picture: PA

Nicola Sturgeon has announced that national testing will be introduced in Scotland's schools. Picture: PA

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A SYSTEM of national testing is to be introduced in primary schools as part of a drive for greater educational equality in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has announced.

The new assessments, which will focus on literacy and numeracy, will be introduced for pupils in primaries one, four and seven, as well as youngsters in third year at secondary school, across Scotland in 2017. The move, revealed yesterday by the First Minister as she outlined the SNP’s programme for government for the year ahead, could open the door to the ­return of school league tables.

I am determined that we make available much more information about performance in primary and lower secondary school

Nicola Sturgeon

But Ms Sturgeon insisted that national testing is necessary to close the gap ­between “children in our most and least deprived areas”.

Last night council leaders warned that it could be a retrograde step if it leads to “inaccurate and unfair” comparisons ­between schools through league tables. Ms Sturgeon, who was unveiling her first legislative programme since replacing Alex Salmond as First Minister, also took the opportunity yesterday to set out how the SNP intends to use the new powers coming to Holyrood under the Smith Commission.

A new “Scottish social security system” will be established when the country gets the new powers, she said. But education was at the heart of the First Minister’s plans, with the SNP leader telling MSPs that improving youngsters’ classroom performance is “arguably the single most important objective” in her legislative programme for the coming year.

Ms Sturgeon said: “I have no desire to see crude league tables that distort rather than enhance our understanding of children’s attainment and school performance. However, I am determined that we make available much more information about performance in primary and lower secondary school.”

Councillor Stephanie Primrose, education spokeswoman with local government body Cosla, said the move could be “positive” for schools.

But she warned: “If we are not careful, despite assurances, this could turn the clock back to ­national testing and, whether ­intended or not, league tables.

“We share the concerns of parents and unions that if not handled correctly, this risks being a retrograde step that heaps more pressure on pupils and teachers and leads to inaccurate and unfair comparisons between schools.”

The SNP has come under pressure from Labour’s new leader in Scotland, Kezia Dugdale, over the “attainment gap” between rich and poor areas. Students in more affluent areas are twice as likely than those in poorer areas to get at least one Higher.

“Almost half of the poorest kids leaving primary school are unable to write properly or to count properly – that should shame us as a nation,” Ms Dugdale told MSPs yesterday.

“We in this chamber are responsible not just for caring for these children during the hours they are at school, but for preparing them for the opportunities of the years to come. By any measure we are failing them.”

Conservative leader Ruth Davidson gave her support to the announcement on testing.

“It’s simply wrong that parents can see their child go all the way through primary school and half-way into high school without having any independent measure of how well they’re doing,” Ms Davidson said.

“We need to measure ourselves against the rest of the world so our children have the very best chance of success.

“The First Minister has already made it clear that she wants her administration to be judged on its educational record. I only wish that single-minded purpose had come about a little ­earlier than eight long years after the SNP took sole control over the Scottish Government.”

But Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said national testing would put children “under unacceptable pressure to make the numbers look good”.

Ms Sturgeon also addressed the growing crisis of public confidence in Police Scotland yesterday by announcing a national review of the beleaguered force’s governance.

The First Minister said the successor to departing Chief Constable Sir Stephen House will now appear before “local scrutiny sessions” to improve accountability.

The national police force has been hit by a number of controversies, with independent investigations under way into the death in custody of Fife man Sheku Bayoh, along with officers’ failure to respond to reports of a crash on the M9 which claimed two lives.

Any recommendations resulting from the review of police call-handling will be implemented, Ms Sturgeon said, adding that a statutory code of practice on stop and search will also be introduced.

A total of eight new bills are planned, including tougher legislation on domestic abuse, which will also attempt to tackle the problem of people sharing private pictures of ex-partners in so-called revenge porn cases. The Scottish Government will also bring in a Private Tenancies Bill, which will include provisions for rent controls in certain areas.

The First Minister went on to set out how she would use new powers over tax and welfare that are coming to Scotland in the wake of last year’s independence referendum.

But she said the “limited welfare powers” in Westminster’s Scotland Bill “fall far short of what we would need to fully mitigate the harm caused by UK government policies”.

The Scottish Government will invest £100 million this year in an effort to lessen the impact of welfare reforms, with the SNP leader pledging: “We will continue to stand against a UK government that imposes austerity on the vulnerable while preparing to spend billions renewing

Trident.”

If the SNP are still in power after next May’s Holyrood elections, Ms Sturgeon said a Social Security Bill would be introduced in the first year of the new parliament to pave the way for a new Scottish welfare system.

“This will make provision for the earliest possible abolition of the bedroom tax,” she pledged.

EDUCATION

NEW national, standardised assessments will be brought in for pupils in primaries one, four and seven, as well as for youngsters in the third year of secondary school. They will be introduced from 2017 after being piloted next year. The new assessments will focus on literacy and numeracy. The move is aimed at closing the gap in school attainment between rich and poor areas of the country.

The new tests will be developed in partnership with local government, teachers and parents.

They will be part of a new National Improvement Framework to identify what is working in Scotland’s classrooms – and what needs to change.

HEALTHCARE

THE chronic pressure on Scotland’s GPs led to the surprise announcement that “new models” of primary care will be tested around the country. GPs are to be encouraged to work in “clusters” and develop new ways of working with district nurses, health visitors, community rehabilitation teams and health improvement services. It is hoped that the good practice resulting from this can be rolled out across Scotland, with a new “fit for the future” GP contract also introduced.

There will also be investment of £100 million to improve mental health services, particularly for young people. The Golden Jubilee model of care, separating emergency from planned care, will also be extended.

POLICING

POLICE Scotland has been embroiled in a number of high-profile controversies since its formation in 2013.

The Scottish Government said it was now time to “take stock” of policing reform and improve local accountability within the single force.

In an attempt to strengthen community policing, members of the public will be given more say in local decisions. The chief constable will be required to carry out a series of public scrutiny sessions across the country.

At a national level, force watchdog the Scottish Police Authority will be asked to carry out a review of police governance. A new statutory code will also be drawn up for the controversial police tactic of stop and search.

DOMESTIC ABUSE

MORE powers are to be introduced to deal with domestic abusers under the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm Bill.

The legislation will create a statutory domestic abuse “aggravator”, which will augment existing offences such as assault or breach of the peace.

The Scottish Government said work was continuing on the introduction of a specific offence to deal with “psychological abuse and coercive and controlling behaviour”.

Those who share sexually explicit images as “revenge porn” will be criminalised under a new offence.

And Scottish prosecutors and courts will also be given new powers in relation to child sex offences committed elsewhere in the UK.

RENT CONTROLS

PRIVATE sector rents have soared in recent years, prompting opposition calls for controls to be introduced. Ms Sturgeon annunced yesterday that a new law, the Private Tenancies Bill, will be introduced which includes the possibility

of rent controls in high-pressure areas.

It will also provide clear “rights and safeguards” for landlords, Ms Sturgeon said.

Living Rent activist Harriet Protheroe-Davis said: “This is a big victory for tenants and for the Living Rent Campaign. Rents are becoming increasingly unaffordable, and if we are serious about tackling poverty in the private rented sector, rent controls are a must.”

BABY ASHES

THE Mortonhall scandal over the way baby ashes were being disposed of led to the exposure of widespread malpractice across Scotland. Ms Sturgeon announced measures yesterday, to be contained in the Burial and Cremation bill, which should tighten up procedures, with new regulations and inspection arrangements.

“We believe that these measures will prevent the recurrence of practices which caused so much anguish to many parents and relatives,” Ms Sturgeon told MSPs.

The proposals implement many of the measures which were set out in the recommendations of the Bonomy report into the scandal.

HOUSING

Ambitious plans to surpass the target of developing 30,000 affordable homes over the lifetime of the Parliament have been unveiled. An additional £195 million will also be pumped into the Help To Buy scheme, which assists those buying new build properties, over the next three years.

But Ashley Campbell of the Chartered Institute of Housing Scotland, said more needs to be done to meet Scotland’s housing needs.

She said: “It will require co-ordinated efforts from partners across the housing sector, local and national government and the private sector as well as significant reform to land and planning systems. It is a challenge that we must embrace together.”

LOBBYING

A LONG-awaited bill to crack down on lobbying at Holyrood was announced by Ms Sturgeon yesterday. It comes after a campaign over several years by Labour MSP Neil Findlay for action to avoid any repeat of the scandals which have surfaced at Westminster in recent years.

A consultation was launched earlier in the year into the conduct of lobbyists after an investigation carried out by Parliament’s standards, procedures and public appointments committee.

There are already strict rules around lobbying activity in the Scottish Parliament. But the SNP Government’s parliamentary business manager Joe Fitzpatrick said earlier this year that the government is keen to act now to “put beyond doubt any question of lobbying impropriety” in Scotland and increase transparency.

SCOTLAND BILL

THE SNP could be ready to block the Scotland Bill which would hand new tax and welfare powers to Holyrood, Ms Sturgeon warned yesterday.

The Scottish Government fears the cut in Scotland’s annual £30 billion block grant – to be made up with the tax-raising powers – is too harsh and will leave Scotland worse off. It is claimed the Treasury is “playing hardball” in negotiations with Scottish officials.

Ms Sturgeon warned that she will only back the Scotland Bill if the funding is “fair”.

“We hope that parliament will be able to consent to the bill by March 2016,” she said. “But let me make clear that we will only recommend consent if the accompanying fiscal framework is also fair to Scotland.”

INTERNATIONALISATION

THE value of Scotland’s trade with the rest of the world increased by 20 per cent in the three years from 2010 and the First Minister yesterday set out plans to “intensify” the government’s support for internationalisation.

New innovation and investment hubs are to be established in London, Brussels and Dublin. They will be up and running by next summer and provide bases for the government, its agencies and Scottish firms to make international connections. It is hoped this will help boost exports and inward investment, as well as promoting Scottish universities. A new trade and investment strategy will also be published later this year by ministers.

ELECTIONS

THE SNP Government could be on the verge of a 14-year stint in power in Scotland after plans were unveiled to extend the next parliament to five years to avoid a clash with the Westminster elections in 2020. It is the second time in a row that the Holyrood election has been extended by a year in order to avoid such a clash and prompted Labour concerns that the First Minister was making an arbitrary decision about how long the Scottish Parliament was sitting.

A bill to be brought before MSPs next year proposing the switch was described by Ms Sturgeon yesterday as a “practical step to improve democratic processes”.

It means Ms Sturgeon will be assured of at least six years as First Minister if she wins next year’s ele–tion – still a year less than her predecessor, Alex Salmond.

ECONOMIC GROWTH

AIR Passenger duty is to be cut by 50 per cent when the Scottish Government gets control over this next year under the new powers coming to Holyrood under the Scotland Bill. The reduction will begin in April 2018 when a replacement Scottish tax will be introduced.

A fifth enterprise zone is also to be established at BioCity in North Lanarkshire. The operation of the existing four enterprise zones will also be extended for three years until 2020. A new manufacturing action will also be published in the autumn, along with a “root and branch” review of the planning system to increase the amount of housing developments being built in Scotland.

SOCIAL SECURITY

THE foundations of a new Scottish social security system were unveiled by Ms Sturgeon yesterday. She set out the Scottish Government’s “priorities” for the new powers it assumes under the Scotland Bill next year. This includes new welfare controls, and the First Minister also unveiled plans for a Scottish Social Security Bill if the SNP wins next year’s Holyrood election.

It will result in improvements for disabled people, changes to Universal Credit to help people better manage their money and the “earliest possible abolition” of the bedroom tax. The SNP government is also working on a replacement for the DWP’s current work programme.

“We will do everything we can to mitigate welfare cuts and restore dignity to our social security system,” Ms Sturgeon told MSPs.

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