Primary One pupils in Scotland are being used to “score political points” in the row over national testing, according to parent and children’s organisations.
In a series of highly critical submissions to Holyrood’s education committee this week, the absence of communication about the policy is described as creating a climate of “fear and anxiety” among parents.
They said First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s flagship call to be judged on her education record means the tests have already become “high stakes”, despite government claims to the contrary. And they contain a stark warning that the policy will see the attainment gap widen.
The Scottish Government insists the tests are a “key part” of its drive to improve schooling standards.
MSPs will start an inquiry into the tests this week, with a separate independent investigation into the testing regime already under way after having been announced by Education Secretary John Swinney.
The Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSAs) were introduced last year and see youngsters tested in literacy and numeracy in P1, P3, P7 and S3. But they have proved contentious with complaints that youngsters have been left distressed and teaching unions insisting they have little educational value.
Joanna Murphy of the National Parent Forum of Scotland warned: “We are now in a situation with SNSAs that is entirely unacceptable: our children’s education is being used to score political points.”
And in the forum’s submission to MSPs she hit out at a “repeated lack of good, direct communication” from schools, councils and the government to parents, saying: “When there is a vacuum of information it allows fear and anxiety to spread.”
The Scottish Parliament has already voted for the tests in P1 to be axed after all opposition parties united to defeat the SNP government on the issue. Fife Council has announced it has scrapped the tests for the youngest pupils.
And although the exams provide teachers with “exceptional information”, according to Ms Murphy, the information passed on to parents was branded “meaningless”.
Eileen Prior, executive director of independent parents’ group Connect said the P1 test is being introduced at a stage where “learning through play” is the declared focus of the teaching system.
“To introduce tests at this stage is to act completely counter to the purpose of this approach,” she said.
The tests are a multiple choice exercise carried out online and delivered by the Australian Council for Educational Research International United Kingdom (Acer UK). Acer UK’s director of assessment and reporting, Juliette Mendelovits, will appear before MSPs this week.
The same assessment is supposed to take place in every state school in Scotland, though teachers decide when to do them. They do not take place under exam conditions and ministers have said they should happen in “an informal and relaxed way”.
Ms Sturgeon has pledged to drive down the gap in performance between schools in affluent parts of Scotland and less well-off areas and in a keynote speech in 2016 called on Scots to judge her on this.
But children’s organisation Upstart Scotland warned that the pressure of the P1 tests could exacerbate mental health problems, particularly in disadvantaged pupils. The body states in a submission: “It is therefore improbable that the introduction of SNSA will help close the poverty-related attainment gap – indeed, it is ore likely to widen it.”
It added: “The First Minister’s call to be judged on her record in education means that SNSA is recognised by the public and media as a key factor of a high-stakes policy. As such, it puts considerable pressure on local authorities, schools and teachers.”
Children in Scotland added that the assessments “appear to present a pathway to high stakes testing” and questioned their “validity and reliability”.
But a submission from the Scottish Government insisted that the tests provide a “valid assessment” of children’s literacy and numeracy in line with Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence.
It adds that the “positive impact” of the assessments on learning and teaching is “clearly demonstrated” in a series of case studies published by ministers in October, and said: “The information can also help redirect learning and support teachers in looking at how certain groupings might be working.”