The Scottish Government is facing a Holyrood showdown over controversial primary one tests after a major review by ministers concluded the assessments should not be axed.
The Liberal Democrats are now stepping up plans to bring forward a vote in the Scottish Parliament on the testing regime, with all opposition parties demanding the assessments be scrapped. A united opposition vote would spell defeat for the minority SNP administration.
Education secretary John Swinney yesterday set out changes to the assessment regime in light of concerns that five-year-olds were struggling to cope with the tests. But he made it clear the Scottish national standardised assessments (SNSAs) in P1, P4, P7 and S3, which were introduced last year, will not be axed.
The review prompted an angry response from the country’s biggest teaching union, which rejected claims the regime helped pupils’ development.
A campaign has already been launched to end the assessments for the youngest pupils following reports some have been left in tears and that teachers find them a waste of time.
Mr Swinney issued an open letter to P1 parents in Scotland defending the assessment regime, insisting it would help give youngsters “the best start in life”.
But Liberal Democrat education spokesman Tavish Scott stepped up calls for the tests to be scrapped.
“These tests for P1 children have been shown up as time consuming, confusing and of limited value,” he said. The SNP are carrying on regardless. We say they should stop the P1 tests. We want a vote at Holyrood to force ministers to see the sense in halting them.”
Although a Holyrood defeat would not be binding, it would be politically difficult for SNP ministers to ignore because of the importance they place on the “will of Parliament” on issues such as the constitution.
The changes to the testing regime will see training and advice for teachers improved and children undertaking the P1 assessments will be asked for feedback.
Mr Swinney said: “Our review found that children generally rated the assessments as accessible and stimulating, while teachers were pleased with the information provided by the assessments.
“I have listened to the range of feedback and changes this year should further improve the experience for learners and provide extra reassurance to teachers and parents.
“While primary one questions were deemed to be at an appropriate level of difficulty, many will be refreshed so that they provide a more familiar context for children. Training and advice for teachers will be improved and children undertaking the assessments will be asked for feedback. Communication with parents is vital and the website information has been updated.”
Across all the assessments, a third of the questions have been changed.
Children will be asked to rate their experience at the end of each assessment.
Teachers will be able to provide feedback at any time and there will be an annual random survey of teachers.
But Susan Quinn, education convener of the EIS teaching union, said the body still had “serious concerns” over the assessments.
“It is surprising to note from the Scottish Government statement today that children have apparently found the assessments ‘accessible and stimulating’ and that teachers were ‘very pleased’ with the information provided by SNSAs,” Ms Quinn said.
“These findings run contrary to the vast majority of experiences reported by teachers across Scotland in the recent EIS survey, the findings of which were shared with the Scottish Government. The EIS will be interested to see the evidence base for the Scottish Government’s interpretation of SNSA feedback from pupils and teachers.”
She said the changes to the testing regime set out by Mr Swinney would “do little to allay the very serious concerns” of teachers.
Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith said: “These tests for five-year-olds do not produce meaningful results – a point which is backed up by the vast majority of educationalists and teachers in early years education.
“John Swinney should listen to the teaching profession and scrap them without delay.”
Labour’s Iain Gray branded the education secretary’s defence of the testing regime as “desperate”.
“They should be suspended indefinitely for primary one pupils and reviewed for the rest of the school year,” he said.
“The truth is this policy is no longer about education, but rather about saving face for John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon.”
Green MSP Ross Greer said: “These tests are unnecessary, unwanted and in too many cases downright damaging.”