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Testing row sparks new debate over Scottish education

Nicola Sturgeon on a visit to Renfrew High School, Renfew, Scotland. Photo: PA images

Over the past few weeks Representing Border has devoted a lot of time to the Scottish government's controversial plans to 'test' primary one pupils. Deputy First Minister and education secretary, John Swinney, has robustly defended 'standardised assessments' as vital to provide early information on pupils' performance.

Along with the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, he argues it is a key component of efforts to close the still troubling attainment gap between pupils from better off and less well off backgrounds.

Yet the Scottish government has found itself isolated on this issue. All of the other parties at Holyrood oppose P1 testing, as does the main teaching union, the EIS, and several parents groups.

The opposition parties are determined to force a vote on this in the Scottish parliament soon, a vote Mr Swinney will lose unless he changes tack, and he has given no indication he will.

The education secretary can, of course, ignore any vote, though it will be awkward for the SNP to do so, given the importance it has placed on other non-binding votes at Holyrood.

That's the politics of this dispute, but it is also worth looking at the deeper philosophical - some might say ideological - differences of opinion which lie behind the current debate.

On one side are those who say that testing at the age of five is simply wrong. Kids that age should be taught through play, not in any formal way.

But this argument goes even deeper than that, and relates to the setting up of Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) which has been well over a decade in the making.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon Credit: PA images

The idea behind it was to give teachers more scope to shape lessons for their pupils and, to use a much over-used word, 'empower' them to be creative, not following set ways of working.

There's a certain irony in the fact that it may have been called the Curriculum for Excellence but it was not formally a curriculum at all. Academics and teachers who supported this approach saw it as breaking away from the old ways of formulaic teaching and rote learning.

Put very simply, they argued it would help youngsters prepare for the modern, ever-changing, world where creativity and flexibility were more important than an ability to do their times tables.

The problem with this was continued need to test pupils formally - later in their school careers at least - in the shape of exams which parents, employers and higher and further education still placed great emphasis on.

Many teachers found they were under pressure to deliver on these exam results and this conflicted with the CfE principles of giving them greater responsibility and discretion.

Which (in a very brief and necessarily broad brush summary) brings us to where we are today. The row over testing is actually part of a broader debate over what education is for, and how it should be organised.

To get a feel for this, consider the positions of two of Scotland's foremost education academics on the issue of P1 testing. For Emeritus Professor Brian Boyd, of Strathclyde University, these tests, simply "need to stop".

In a recent letter to The National newspaper he wrote: "It is ill-advised, lacking in any research-based rationale and is inimical to the aims of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE).

"It is worth remembering that CfE aims to ensure that all pupils emerge from their schooling as successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens …exactly what we would want in an independent Scotland"

Prof Boyd added that Scotland should look to Finland where there are higher staffing levels, no private schools, the absence of national inspection "and you have what was at the heart of the original CfE document, namely trust in the teaching profession."

The counter argument, on testing at least, comes from Prof Sue Ellis, also of Strathclyde University, who says she "broadly" supports Mr Swinney and the Scottish government.

Nicola Sturgeon and Deputy First minister and education secretary John Swinney Credit: PA

In a recent interview for BBC Scotland's Good Morning Scotland programme she argued it was not good enough to tell pupils when they reach the age of 16 the system had not been fair to them.

She said that under the previous 5-14 curriculum teachers "could be leaned on" to meet targets, and the judgements they recorded when they reported on pupils reflected that.

Ms Ellis added: "We need to make sure that teacher judgement in Campbeltown is the same as teacher judgement in Cambuslang."

Amid claims children were being withdrawn from the test, she also claimed it would be easy to "whip parents up" on "quite spurious grounds" citing past objections to vaccinations like the MMR jab.

And she said that if there was stress in the tests, it was the "adults around the children" who should take responsibility for that.

Now, it must be said that there are many other academics, not to mention, politicians who profoundly disagree with this view. Teachers and some parents groups have said the tests put too much stress on five-year-olds. That discussion will continue, and no doubt be aired when MSPs finally come round to debating the specific issue of P1 testing.

However, in their remarks Prof Boyd and Prod Ellis sum up the different sides of this debate. This is as much about the philosophy behind the future of education in Scotland as it is about the tests themselves.