Primary 1 testing row explained as pressure mounts on John Swinney

It must seem like every time John Swinney reads the news, there is another row over controversial plans for assessment of primary 1 pupils.

The SNP hopes primary school tests will help to close the attainment gap. Picture: Getty/iStockphoto

Today’s controversy is the accusation by parents’ groups and other politicians that a senior Scottish Government civil servant misled councils over whether parents could opt their children out of the tests.

The assessments are not going to be scrapped, insists Swinney, and so it appears that this row will continue throughout the school year and beyond.

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But how did we get here? And how could it be resolved? We look at the real story behind the explosive row on assessments of primary school pupils.


Education has been a sticking point for the SNP Government, even before the party lost a working majority in the 2016 Scottish Parliament.

Nicola Sturgeon declared it her number one priority when she took over from Alex Salmond amid continued controversy over the SNP’s flagship ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ reform.

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As criticism mounted over falling literacy and numeracy standards, the Scottish Government announced a new standardised assessment in those areas to track the progress of pupils.

The collection of the data was seen as a way to examine general trends in standards of literacy and numeracy, rather than exhaustive league tables.

Tests were completed by children in Primary 1, 4, 7 and S3, and were taken online, took an hour and did not offer ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ marks.

Announcing the move, which was designed to improve attainment, at the time, John Swinney said: “We have already had very positive feedback from teachers about the level of detail telling them where pupils are succeeding or where they require further development.”

The Backlash

Unions cautiously welcomed the move when it was announced, but were quick to note that they opposed any move towards blanket testing or ‘unofficial league tables’.

Less than a year letter, the EIS Union was backing plans by parents to boycott the standardised tests amid complaints that unnecessary stress was being put on young children, with pupils as young as four and five taking the tests.

The Upstart campaign, led by a former teacher, has stepped up its opposition to the plans in recent months.

They too backed the boycott.

Upstart’s Sue Palmer said last week: “If you feel this testing will be harmful for your child, don’t do it.

“And even if you don’t but you feel it’s harmful for other children, then why do it? We hope they will withdraw them from the tests.”

Rival politicians, for their part, have seized on the opposition, branding the reports ‘cruel’ amid ‘horror stories’ from parents that children had been left in tears by the tests.

The future

The Government is remaining firm in its commitment to the new tests, even as pressure continues to mount on John Swinney.

Anecdotal evidence continues to trickle in from parents, teachers, and union leaders.

One teacher was quoted as saying of the tests: “This is a massive use of staff resources that could be put into supporting children instead of performing tests that are not useful.”

Earlier this year, Mr Swinney told a Holyrood Committee: “I’m taking a very careful and close interest in it and I’m listening to what people are saying to me about this.”

He insisted that despite the feedback from some teachers, the tests were meant to be informal and relaxed, and were not equivalent to SQA examinations.

With accusations of misleading information, prominent campaigns and criticism from Trade Unions, there is little sign of this controversy abating.

Mr Swinney, however, is digging in on the tests, and insists they are here to stay.

And with the tests staying, the row over them is sure to continue as long as they do.