Educationalists have suggested putting primary one children through tests in literacy and numeracy skills is “tantamount ... to abuse”.
So it was most welcome to hear that Scotland’s Education Secretary John Swinney is open to rethinking the controversial exams, even though he stressed some kind of testing was here to stay.
One of the stated aims of the 40-minutes assessments is to help close the ‘attainment gap’ in education between pupils from the richest and poorest areas. And that is an important ambition which everyone in Scotland can get behind.
The tests help provide the baseline data which can later be used to show which pupils are improving and which are not, thereby potentially helping schools and the Government identify particular problem areas and pick up on successful practices.
Politicians have an understandable desire for data to help them make sensible decisions but, in this case, ministers need to be alive to the potential dangers of gathering such information.
Swinney stressed the tests should be done in a “very relaxed environment” so clearly he does not want to see pupils being stigmatised or made to feel like they are “bottom of the league” at the age of just four or five. Those are just some of the concerns raised by the Play not Tests campaign, supported by teaching unions and children’s charities. The Upstart Scotland charity compared the tests to an “adverse childhood experience” like illness, neglect or abuse, that could lead to mental health problems later in life.
But there is also the suggestion tests at such a young age run counter to emerging ideas in education that children should learn through play. Rather than having knowledge inserted into their young minds for hours on end, they should be helped to discover the joy of finding things out.
The P1 tests were introduced in Scotland last year, so the concept is still a new one and the Scottish Government is unlikely to perform a sudden about-turn. But, while it’s only reasonable that the tests are given a decent chance to prove their worth, ministers must not allow any political considerations to influence their policies. So, if the tests are not shown to have significant benefits or if they are found to be anything like close to “abuse”, they should be scrapped, whatever the resulting political embarrassment.