Jane Bradley: Children just aren’t that bothered by P1 tests

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My daughter loved the P1 standardised assessments. I realise that if she reads this in the future, she may not thank me for publicly outing her as a geek, but I feel it is necessary for you to know.

Don’t get me wrong, we are by no means hot-housing her to grow up as a lover of all things examination. She went to a hippy-dippy, child-led, play-based nursery; we’re all about trying not to overschedule her and let her learn at her own pace. We’re not tiger parents in any way.

She attends a state primary which she loves and says that her favourite part of the school day is “playtime and lunchtime”. In short, she is a normal child who likes to learn well enough, but prefers chasing her friends around the school yard and riding her bike to the park.

Yet, far from finding the P1 assessments stressful in any way, as many opponents of the scheme have claimed, she described them as her “most fun day at school”.

Yet MSPs this week voted in favour of scrapping the tests after weeks of wrangling over the issue.

Education secretary John Swinney is also clearly keen to demonstrate just how fun the tests are: he recently arranged a drop in session for all MSPs to see how the assessment works. I can’t help wondering how they’ll do.

We didn’t actually realise that our daughter had even done them at the time. The whole thing passed us by in an end-of-term blur. She didn’t mention it when I did my usual “And how was your day?” question when I picked her up.

It was only when the issue was raised in the news again a few weeks ago that I remembered to ask her if the tests had actually taken place before the end of the last school year. She looked blank at first.

The idea that she had been tested in any way was new to her. I tried again. “Did you do anything on the iPad at school...with a teacher or classroom assistant...on your own?”

Her face lit up. “Yes,” she recalled. “That was the most fun day at school - ever.”

As far as she is concerned, getting to press buttons on the iPad is the most fun she can imagine (yes, I am that mean a parent that it is still a fairly rare treat).

Now, I’m willing to admit that my daughter likes to learn in a fairly traditional way. She’s quite happy to sit at a desk and write something, read a book for a while or listen to a teacher and follow instructions. I accept that not every child is the same - there are plenty of other youngsters I know who aren’t suited to that style of learning. Yet I have never met anyone in real life who has told me that their offspring was traumatised by the P1 tests. I asked my daughter about that too and she is pretty sure that yes, her classmates loved the iPad questions as much as she did.

As we had no idea when the tests were taking place - nor did we care - there was no stressful build up, no scope for over-enthusiastic parents to coach their child.

I haven’t actually seen the tests myself - I’m tempted to try to crash Swinney’s roadshow just to have a look - but from what my daughter tells me, they were interactive, bright and cheerful. Presumably to the children, they were little different to the digital games and activities they all clamour to engage in on the iPad when given the chance during their weekly, fun, “choosing time” session.

The tests also, according to the government website dedicated to them, adapt to each child. If youngsters are struggling to answer the questions, the iPad automatically makes them easier. Therefore, no child comes away feeling as if they have failed. This element was definitely successful in my daughter’s class, where apparently “everyone said it was easy peasy.”

The assessments were presumably also fairly similar to the dozens of other tests every classroom teacher invariably has to carry out on a regular basis, whether we know about it or not. Most schools group children for certain activities according to their abilities: how well they can read, write, do maths. They have to, in order to “get it right for every child”.

If we believe that teachers are able to work out in which group they should be placed by some kind of magic method of reading a child’s mind and guessing their level without actually having to get them to demonstrate their ability in any way (otherwise known as “an assessment”) then we are mistaken. Assessments take place every day in schools up and down the country - we’re just not informed every time it happens.

Parents do not find out how their child has performed in the standardised tests - there is no stick with which over-zealous, academically-focused mums and dads can use to beat their five-year-old. Results are used on an internal basis and mainly, to check how the school is doing as a whole.

Whether these tests are the best way of doing that, I have absolutely no idea: I’m no authority on the matter. If you read some accounts from teachers and education experts, they are vital, while others claim they are a complete waste of time.

In my opinion, the absolute worst case scenario is that they could, potentially, be a waste of time. What they are not is some kind of mechanism to damage young children’s mental health.

At a school meeting I attended a couple of weeks ago, groups of anxious new P1 parents raised the topic, practically shaking with fear as they pictured their tiny youngsters sitting nervously in front of a test paper in exam conditions.

“Will we be allowed to opt out?” they asked, arranging to hold a separate meeting with the head to discuss the issue again in more depth, while we veteran parents of P2s rolled our eyes, knowing that our offspring have not been irreparably harmed by the ordeal.

No doubt the debate will continue to rage until the tests are officially removed from the classroom - the vote does not mean they have to be, but the political pressure will be such that they may well be. Feel free to use them as a political hot potato - cite their existence as a symbol of the government’s failure to provide the education system that we want if you like.

Just don’t use the children as an excuse - they’re really not bothered.