John Swinney has urged schools to continue with controversial tests for primary one pupils despite being dealt a humiliating defeat in the Scottish Parliament.
But despite impassioned opposition calls for Mr Swinney to respect the will of parliament, he left the door open for pressing ahead with the digital assessments.
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After the vote, the Deputy First Minister tweeted that the Scottish Government still believed “assessment is an important part of [the] improvement agenda”.
He advised schools “to continue with their existing plans on SNSAs (Scottish National Standardised Assessments)”. Mr Swinney also said he would consider the outcome of the debate and make a parliamentary statement in due course.
But the Holyrood vote was another serious setback for the embattled Education Secretary who is facing widespread opposition to his school reforms.
Earlier this year Mr Swinney shelved his flagship Education Bill, which was supposed to deliver more control over schools to headteachers amid opposition from local authorities and rival politicians.
Nicola Sturgeon has made turning around Scotland’s education system her key policy priority and appointed Mr Swinney to the education brief two years ago to achieve that.
The Tories tabled their motion calling for the tests to be scrapped for primary one pupils after widespread concern about the impact they were having on children and teachers.
Holyrood’s Education Committee had previously heard evidence suggesting that young children had been reduced to tears by the assessments.
Many teachers submitted evidence saying too much time was devoted to setting up and sitting the tests which could be better spent on other educational activities.
Labour, Lib Dem and Green politicians backed the Conservative motion which questioned whether primary one tests were consistent with “play-based philosophy” to defeat the SNP by 63 votes to 61.
An amendment in Mr Swinney’s name arguing the tests were valuable for closing the attainment gap and educating children was defeated by the same margin. The vote, however, was not binding for the government because it was not a legislative one.
The Conservative motion focussed on scrapping tests for primary one pupils, because Ruth Davidson’s party favours keeping national assessments for older children.
As well as primary one, the Scottish Government has introduced SNSAs for primaries four and seven plus S3 at secondary schools. Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens oppose the tests altogether.
During a fiery debate Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith said while her party had backed the use of the tests, they had been wrong to do so when it came to the youngest pupils.
“We made a mistake about P1,” Ms Smith admitted. Last night Ms Smith urged the SNP not to defy the will of Holyrood.
“The Scottish Parliament has voted decisively on this matter, and now the SNP government must act on that,” Ms Smith said.
“The Nationalists have ignored the evidence on this for quite some time, but they can’t afford to any longer. These tests need to be halted, and the evidence re-examined. The SNP is always talking about how important the Scottish Parliament is and how its will must be respected.
“This is the perfect chance for the SNP to do just that.”
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard raised a point of order saying the will of parliament should be obeyed.
Mr Leonard said: “Teachers told this government that these tests were useless, ministers ignored them. Parents told this government that they do not trust these tests, ministers ignored them. The Scottish Parliament has now voted to scrap these tests and SNP ministers must not now ignore the will of parliament. The government must therefore bring forward immediate plans for how it will respond to this evening’s vote as a matter of urgency.”
Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Tavish Scott MSP said: “A child could tell you that 63 votes is bigger than 61 but John Swinney’s stubbornness has ensured that he has had to find out the hard way.”