Lesley Riddoch: Testing five-year-olds is not child's play

Lesley Riddoch wonders why we still want to hammer the three Rs into children at an earlier age than most of the world
Testing of five-year-olds is not rational, helpful or kind, says Lesley Riddoch  and could even damage development. Picture: contributedTesting of five-year-olds is not rational, helpful or kind, says Lesley Riddoch  and could even damage development. Picture: contributed
Testing of five-year-olds is not rational, helpful or kind, says Lesley Riddoch  and could even damage development. Picture: contributed

The Scottish Government’s new national tests in literacy and numeracy took a pummelling last week with the publication of teachers’ concerns. Some said the test had prompted otherwise confident five-year-olds to burst into tears and one child had “soiled itself due to the extreme distress”.

Children said things like; “I’m no good”, “I can’t do this”, and “Why are you making me do this?” Others were “shaking and crying.” One teacher branded the tests ‘completely useless’ and ‘cruel nonsense,’ saying pupils could get high scores simply by guessing answers.

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But the reaction has been strangely hostile. Commentators, experts and some parents have ­dismissed the evidence, insisting that teachers and pushy parents are transmitting their own uncertainties to the kids and traumatised children will quickly recover. Why so harsh?

Some SNP supporters treat problems uncovered by political rivals like Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie as manufactured criticism of the Scottish Government. But there’s more.

Scots have long experienced and endured hurt at an early age and although smacking’s been banned, a belief still remains that early, tough life lessons “never did us any harm”. This sits beside a deep-seated cultural belief that the three Rs should be hammered into children as ­early as humanly possible.

Such withering disbelief flies in the face of the facts. Britain stands alone in ­forcing five year-olds into formal education at all. In 1870, the UK parliament chose an early school starting age so ­mothers could ­provide cheap labour in ­factories. Only 12 per cent of countries worldwide share British practice and they are all are former parts of the British Empire.

Malta and Ireland, however, recently joined 66 per cent of the world’s ­countries, which start school at six. Meanwhile 22 per cent of countries including Finland, Estonia and Switzerland have a play-based kindergarten from 3-7. Perhaps that’s why they topped a recent OECD ­international review into education achievement.

According to child psychologist Dr David Whitbread of Cambridge University: “Play is an adaptation which evolved in early human social groups. It enabled humans to become powerful learners and problem-solvers. “Neuroscientific studies have shown that playful activity leads to synaptic growth, particularly in the frontal ­cortex, the part of the brain responsible for all the uniquely human higher mental functions.” In short, if you stifle play you stunt personal growth.

Scotland has long talked the language of play, but remained firmly wedded to what’s ae been, with disappointing results. In 2016 Durham and York university academics found Scottish pupils from the most deprived areas were 14 months behind more affluent peers entering primary school. No amount of national testing will change that, but a move away from early “schoolification” just might.

Evidence suggests that children taught literacy skills from the age of five do no ­better in the long run than those who start at seven. On the other hand, an early start at school is linked to social, emotional and mental health problems in children forced to begin formal learning before they are ready. This is why the national standardised test at five does such ­damage.

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Some innovative Scottish teachers have introduced a play-based approach to Primaries 1 and 2. Children’s confidence is slowly built up and a close, trusting relationship develops with the teacher. Then one day the children are handed a tablet and told to do things they have never done, for reasons they can’t understand.

The children can’t step back, as they can in the rest of their play-based lives but must sit for 40 minutes until the task is completed – no matter how they feel.

Some are fine. But some are conscious of what they cannot do for the first time, trust with the teacher is broken and confidence collapses. The P1 test forces a clash between two government-backed systems – non-confrontational play and formal, rule-based education. For what?

The result may not be traumatic for the majority of children but it isn’t productive either. “Baseline” tests on English five year-olds were introduced twice in the noughties and abandoned because they had “no meaningful value at such an early developmental stage”.

Now Theresa May plans to introduce Scottish-style, baseline tests again, prompting the British Educational Research Association to label them “a baseline without basis”. That verdict applies to Scotland too.

This is not to say all forms of testing are bad. In world-leading Finland, there is constant observational assessment by teachers who undertake individual, informal tests if there’s a problem. But they are not standardised, not national and not made before the age of six or seven because Finnish five-year-olds are still in kindergarten enjoying play-based learning. In Australia, testing has been conducted for a decade with youngsters of seven and eight – not with five-year-olds.

Sue Palmer, founder of Upstart Scotland, says “after ­primary four there are evidence-based arguments both ways about the value of testing. In primary one there are none at all. National standardised testing runs totally counter to the Curriculum for Excellence and nips in the bud the growing move towards play in the early years. It encourages teaching to the test, ­narrows the curriculum and changes the relationship between teachers and children – particularly damaging for disadvantaged children.”

The urge to stuff education into five-year-old brains may be understandable but it’s not rational, helpful or kind.

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Willie Rennie wants to abolish P1 tests. He concludes: “If [this policy] continues it will be because ministers are more interested in saving face than giving children the best start to their schooling.”

It’ll be hard for the Scottish Government to admit its mistake – but harder still if progressive parents and teachers conclude that Willie Rennie is right.