Leader comment: P1 tests must not be political football

Education is too important an issue for political point scoring, so the fate of P1 tests should be decided by experts based on the evidence.
Education Secretary, John Swinney MSP. Picture: John Devlin.Education Secretary, John Swinney MSP. Picture: John Devlin.
Education Secretary, John Swinney MSP. Picture: John Devlin.

John Swinney says tests for primary one pupils should be “fun and enjoyable”. Some educationalists, however, say the assessments are tantamount to child abuse, while teaching unions have argued they are simply a waste of time.

So, clearly, there is a considerable split over whether testing four and five-year-old children is a good or bad idea. And, in those circumstances, it seems reasonable to commission an “independent, evidence-led” review to establish the facts of the matter, as the Education Secretary announced yesterday.

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The system of standardised tests in P1, P4, p7 and S3 was created by the Scottish Government to track how well our education system is performing. And this is a laudable aim. It could highlight better ways of working that lead to improvements and also reveal problems in individual schools before they blight the lives of hundreds or even thousands of pupils. Any such process has to start somewhere.

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After previous complaints about the P1 tests, changes to the questions were introduced along with fresh guidance for teachers, but that has failed to allay the concerns of teachers and others, including a majority of MSPs, who voted against the assessments in a non-binding motion.

However, there is a danger that the issue has now become a political one, with the opposition seeking to force Swinney into an embarrassing climbdown, while he steadfastly refuses to alter course to avoid the appearance of defeat. Our politicians need to remember the education of our children is not a political football, but a most serious issue. So the people who carry out the new review must be genuine experts and they will need the time and resources to carry out a proper analysis that will be respected by all sides.

Swinney said they would investigate whether P1 tests should continue, be changed again or stopped altogether. They should also consider whether it might be more sensible to start the tests in P2, for example. If P1 children are too young for tests to produce “meaningful results” – as some have argued – then the baseline is flawed and the assessment system will give false results. If the process is anything akin to “abuse”, it must be stopped.

But if Scotland is to recover its global reputation for education, we need to know how our system is performing. Whether that involves P1 tests or some other system, we should now trust the experts to decide.