Tuesday, 4 December 2018

P1 SNSA - Scrutiny Committee

Following writing about the Council motion and amendments to request Fife withdraw from SNSA in P1 - due to the many and varied reasons expressed by teaching staff, headteachers, unions and parents across Scotland and the 700+ responses released in the Freedom of Information request, seeing the Council decision to withdraw voted down at the Education & Children's Services Committee (E&CS), we reached today (still with me?). 

Whilst an amendment was presented at the E&CS Committee the religious representatives voted with the SNP group meaning the amendment failed to pass. Given the outcome of the Council vote which requested a withdrawal, if possible this result was therfore seen as questionable. The amendment put forward was:

Councillor Helen Law, seconded by Councillor Kathleen Leslie, moved that:- 
* This Committee notes a decision of full Council in regard to SNSA assessment in P1 in Fife and agrees to suspend undertaking SNSA P1 pending the outcome of the National Review. 
* Committee recommends to the Scottish Government as part of the Review all P1 staff should be consulted and allowed to contribute anonymously. 
* That Fife has a positive record on education and raising attainment. 
* The Committee agrees to return to the PIPs assessment in Fife. 

The motion passed at the E&CS Committee arrived at the Scrutiny Committee due to my colleague Cllr Richard Watt requesting a call-in following that decision. This required the support of 20 councillors, which he received (cross-party). Therefore, it had to be discussed further. 

Here are the links to my previous comments on P1 SNSA:




This morning the Scrutiny Committee met and although I am not a member of that Committee I was nominated to speak in place of the person who placed the call-in. I was given 5 minutes to present, what I (and others) believe are the arguments against P1 SNSA, the content of the officers report to the E&CS Committee - and the potential implications (or otherwise) if Fife was to withdraw. 

The amendment at full Council in October requested that Fife withdraw, if possible. It asked for a report by officers on this. We were presented with a report which nowhere said we could not withdraw. There was a discussion around the legal framework, if somewhat ambiguous in places, it did not anywhere say it was not possible to withdraw. We know that not all local authorities are carrying out these tests but more to the point there is nothing in the legislation that makes such assessment compulsory (this was clarified in the Scottish Government's own missive to local authorities in September).

The motion noted noted that it disagreed with the E&CS Committee decision and referred it back to full Council. 

I believe this was the correct outcome and I thank all councillors who supported and voted for this motion and all those who supported the call-in. 

Here are some of the key points from this morning - the text of what I said to the Scrutiny Committee follows (and covers in more detail).

The  text of the motion I presented is at the bottom of this post. along with some additional key points which are listed here: 

1. An argument was presented that 1,872 pupils had not yet sat SNSA in P1 and would somehow "miss out" - my response is - if something is not working then you do not continue with it for the sake of continuing. Secondly, SNSA only assesses around 5% of the CfE level data. 

2. The data is passed back to teachers - we know this does not always happen. We also know that parents, in surveys conducted, have noted that they are often in the dark about this assessment - one survey showed 70% of parents did not know when their child was doing SNSA.

3. There was a comment that the data was for here in Fife and not going back to the Scottish Government - if that is the case then why was it stated that Fife feeds in around 7% of the data and why call it "standardised" if it is not? One of the key points previously made was this would provide data for the national picture - so which is it? Does it or does it not?

4. The tests can be done anytime and don't take too much time - on the Scottish Government's own User Review it states that literacy takes an average of 44mins and numeracy 32mins - revealing why they have taken up so much time, keeping a P1 sitting for that long is not an easy feat for anyone. 

5. There was a comment that "improvements" could be made - lets remember this - thousands of trial test questions were run in schools prior to the roll-out. Any problems should have been flagged up then. Additionally, the point was made that the User Review was replacing questions but this was being done prior to that so that is not an argument. 

6. In addition to me presenting, the Convenor of the E&CS Committee also did as did an EIS representative and then members of the Committee were invited to ask questions of us and of officers.   It then proceeded to a motion and amendment. The motion was presented by the Labour group and supported by 3 of the 4 political groups, the SNP presented an amendment - keen were they to hold-up another half-baked and failing policy by their political leaders at Holyrood. 

7. That the cross-party vote at Holyrood was irrelevant to this - no, that was due to the evidence that MSPs had (and which continues to grow) - as councillors, we are also representing the electorate and the majority of the electorate here in Fife voted for parties which do not support P1 SNSA.

Statement to the Scrutiny Committee:

Curriculum for Excellence is built around five levels. The first level being the Early Years – which includes the two years before a child goes to school and Primary 1. This was understood to be a play-based learning philosophy – something which parent led body, Connect believes is being lost they have stated – “SNSA continues the formalisation of the early level of the curriculum to the detriment of many.”

On 6th November the Education & Children’s Services Committee examined the agenda item on SNSA following an amendment passed at Council on 4thOctober. This amendment was supported by 3 of the 4 political groups and called for a withdrawal of participation in SNSA for P1 children, if possible. 

This decision was based on growing international evidence, the voices of classroom teachers and some SMT that had been shared in an FOI request, written and verbal communication with elected representatives across Scotland, dialogue with trade unions and organisations such as Upstart Scotland and Connect (Scottish Parent Teacher Council). 

Very explicit examples of concerns about SNSA here in Fife are within the 700 pages of the FOI request. For the benefit of anyone present today who has not read any of these responses I will provide you with a quote from Fife:

It is not an overstatement to say that I feel I have betrayed relationships and harmed them with our children, particularly our most vulnerable, by putting them through these tests. They are completely inappropriate.”

I would ask that you look at the feedback – this is only one example of many. 

Whilst claims of distressed children have been dismissed by more than one councillor I would direct them to the Scottish Government’s own SNSA User Review which notes at paragraph 30: “Some teachers reported that children found the assessments upsetting.”

There were 4 points to the amendment which was duly voted for by a majority of councillors. For the purposes of today the second and third bullet points, as referenced in these papers at 1.2 & 1.3 will form the basis of the argument that the decision made at Committee was incorrect.  1.1 notes play based assessment and 1.4 was a request made on which I am sure we are all looking forward to being briefed on at the next Council meeting. 

1.2. noted concerns raised by teachers and parents about the introduction of SNSA, the view of the Scottish Parliament and already adopted approaches to assessment in Fife. If we examine the report brought to Committee 2.1.3 states around one third of primary HTs were asked to respond to the experiences in their schools. 2.1.5 & 2.1.6 provide a carefully selected list of “positive” and “less positive” responses. What the report does not provide is explicit concerns of parents and teachers – “less positive” could imply “negative” but are a world away from the feedback in the FOI – a quote in it from Fife which possibly gives a little insight is “dreadful. A serious impact. We struggled for weeks”.Or another “literacy was far too difficult and not in line with benchmarks”.And “there was far too much reading before a question was asked”.

The Scottish Parliament which is the legislative body in Scotland passed a motion in September which noted “the level of concern that has been raised by teachers and other educational professionals regarding the introduction and delivery of new testing arrangements for Primary 1 pupils…and that, in light of these concerns, calls on the Scottish Government to halt the tests in P1.”

This was passed by all opposition parties in the Scottish Parliament – or to put it another way – it was passed by those representing over 50% of the electorate. Yet, this local authority report fails to make mention of the vote by Scotland’s parliament. 

1.3 is where we get to the nub of the matter. At full Council the majority of councillors voted that they “believe(s) that Fife should withdraw from participation in SNSA for P1 children” – that is explicit. This statement added the postscript “if possible” – is it possible? Yes, the Directorate frames this in its own response. Having sought legal advice there are two key points they note. The first is that there is “there are no specific regulations enacted or statutory guidance issued imposing a legal duty to carry out P1 SNSA.” Instead it was “anticipated that education authorities would therefore adopt the assessment scheme without the need for regulations imposing these”. That of course would require an amendment to the Education Act as the Education Secretary in his missive to local authorities of 4thSeptember provides advice that “SNSAs, in common with virtually all aspects of the Scottish curriculum and its delivery, are not provided for in legislation. This means that they cannot be seen as compulsory” – 1.3 asks to halt P1 SNSA if possible – clearly it is. 

The report states that the Council would have to demonstrate that it had evidence that such “withdrawal was a reasonable and proportionate step” and also “demonstrate that it had alternative means of assessing the children it is obliged to educate.” 

The Directorate’s own response notes that P1 “SNSA appears to be the least strong and effective of all the year groups at which SNSA is undertaken”. It also states that “a significant number of schools remain to be convinced of the immediate advantages of using SNSA at P1”.  It does not state that withdrawal would not be a reasonable and proportionate step. More evidence would need to have been provided.

Does Fife have an alternative means of assessing the children it is obliged to educate? Yes, it does. A tried and tested method which not only assessed literacy and numeracy as SNSA does but which looked at cognitive, physical and emotional development in a child in P1, these tests were also far shorter. The report claims that the new assessment will produce potentially highly valuable information that will accord with national standards but it is difficult to feel convinced by this claim when Scotland’s largest teaching union states that at best they assess between 5% and 10% of the skill set covered in P1. Indeed, it is deeply troubling to note that the Scottish Government’s own User Review data indicates the majority of tests nationally were taken in May (over 16,000 assessments in one day) – a criticism that is also noted in comments received from Fife teachers in the FOI that they were instructed when to carry out the assessments. And I quote – “All pupils have to complete them in May regardless of readiness.”

To conclude – “Council believes that Fife should withdraw from participation in SNSA for P1 if possible” – there is nothing in this report to state it is not possible. 


Link to Scrutiny Committee papers can be found here:














Monday, 19 November 2018

Business Education - Is This The End For The Department?

Earlier this year I wrote about my concerns following cuts to high school budgets in Fife by the SNP-Labour Administration at the Council. Of particular concern was the future of the Business Education Department at Queen Anne High School in Dunfermline. I was made aware of a plan that would see the future of the department under threat of closure. 


Following the Summer break and the beginning of the Autumn term the question came up again. Despite writing to the Education & Children's Services Directorate (most recently waiting over 3 weeks for a reply) I have still received no assurance that this vital department will remain open. Indeed, the possibility of closure appears to be quite definite judging by the evasive responses I have had. 

Two weeks ago I brought the matter to the attention of the local media again and following on from that I was contacted by a member of the Scottish Youth Parliament who has now set up a petition. At this stage I would absolutely urge any concerned parent or affected pupil to contact both the school and the Education Directorate and seek an assurance that the department will remain open.




The link can be found here: https://www.dunfermlinepress.com/news/17218463.queen-anne-high-fears-for-future-of-business-subject/?ref=mr&lp=9

Last week I followed this up with a letter to the Dunfermline Press

Dear Sir 

Last week I once again raised concerns about the future of the Business Education Department at QAHS (DP 8/11/18). Having finally received a belated reply from Head of Education & Children’s Services, Shelagh McLean it appears there is still no clarification. 

I note that Phil Black has commented that “Queen Anne has a rich curriculum, fully in line with national expectations and there are no plans to change that.” By that I would then presume he must mean the Business Education Department will continue to run during the next academic year then?

The department, I have been informed, has a cohort of nearly 30 National 5 pupils who should have the opportunity to return and study Administration Financial Services or Business Management. It also has National 4 pupils who may choose to work towards National 5 next year and of course, a Higher class who would also have the opportunity to progress to Advanced Higher – which would be of specific importance for some university entrance requirements.

Therefore, to continue with this “rich curriculum” surely that must mean the opportunity for pupils to continue to study throughout the senior phase subjects within the Business Education Department? 

I would urge any concerned parents and affected pupils to ask for clarification that this vital subject will continue to run. 

Mr Black states that “the school already offers a range of subjects not offered elsewhere”, if Business Education is to cease, Queen Anne High School will be the only high school in Fife not to run this range of subjects. 

 Yours






There is now a petition to keep the Business Education Department open. The link can be found at:


Monday, 5 November 2018

Micro-Management & Scottish Education

"Teachers in Scotland are currently operating within a system of severe micro-management, where everything that occurs does so under an umbrella of ‘super’vision."
I couldn't agree more - whether it be Regional Improvement Collaboratives (going ahead despite a shelved Education Bill) or SNSA testing of P1 (its apparently not statutory but local authorities are expected to carry them out) there is culture of micro-management and despite claims of empowering schools the opposite is happening. The Scottish Government decides and local authorities are expected to do as they are told and no-one is to question.
Tomorrow the Education & Children's Services Committee meets in Fife, on the agenda is SNSA in P1 - councillors are asked to "note the report". Thats it - note it and swiftly move on. This is despite all parties, with of course the exception of the SNP who carry out the bidding of their government at Holyrood, voting to call a halt to these tests. 
We are also asked to agree for Fife to move onto Phase 2 of the Regional Improvement Collaborative which is going to empower school and teachers (but in fact is another top-down initiative from the SNP Government) - a Collaborative that was part of the now shelved Education Bill - but continue we must.
I would suggest a read of the text below. Rod Grant is able to speak out - many educational professionals no longer feel able to about their concerns - most recently seen by an anonymous letter from a teacher to the Education Secretary.

'Scotland's Schools: an environment of mistrust operating in a culture of silence.'
Teachers in Scotland are currently operating within a system of severe micro-management, where everything that occurs does so under an umbrella of ‘super’vision. I have often argued that environment and culture is everything in a school. If you get the climate for learning and teaching wrong, everything falls apart. That seems to be what is now happening in Scotland.
Let us look at the evidence. 
First, teachers work in a system which does not allow them to utter any public criticism. A teacher’s first loyalty is to their local authority and each is expected to toe the party line. In such a system, there is little opportunity for individuals to create cultures of change or to improvise on methodology or approach. We end up with a system that has a one-size-fits-all mentality.
Secondly, there is little attraction to senior leadership posts amongst classroom teachers. You may find this hard to believe but there are currently 15 secondary schools ‘sharing’ head teachers in Scotland and an astonishing 390 primary schools doing likewise, despite the fact that there are currently 412 teachers with Headship qualifications who have chosen to do something else. As recently as last month, there were 92 head teacher or depute posts being advertised in Scotland. But then who would want the top job when the successful candidate (if there were any) has to operate in a climate of mistrust, where there is an intense scrutiny of data on assessment and programmes of learning? That’s not leadership, that’s management on behalf of big brother.
Thirdly, an indication that all is not well is something that is occurring now that I have never seen in my 30 years in schools. Teachers are writing ‘anonymous’ letters to the First Minister or posting criticisms on websites set up to give teachers their voice. The word anonymous says it all really. I can put my name to all criticism because I work outside the confines of what has become a political arena. Politics should play no part in our children’s education but it does and it does so on a daily basis. We have letters describing the frustrations of bureaucracy, of the pressure to conform and today a letter which states that the teacher has been compelled to change reporting comments or grades in order to make the school’s results look more positive. That is nothing short of farcical.
And now, as a result of years of mismanagement and interference, we have the very real prospect of industrial action.
And, let’s be clear, the situation in Scotland could be so very different. We could give teachers the respect they deserve by making their roles more autonomous. The Scottish Government is very good at saying they trust teachers’ professional judgement and then seem to do everything they can to disempower teachers’ professional judgement; standardised tests in Primary 1 the most recent example.
We need to develop a true culture of trust where teachers are empowered to deliver the curriculum in the way that their professional judgement leads them. We need the focus to shift away from lesson observation, from constant and overpowering appraisal and from the requirement of reams of written data on assessment. I’ve heard so much utter nonsense about how everyone in power is seeking to tackle bureaucracy, whilst at the very same time requiring more data and more analysis of data so that it can work out what is going wrong.
What is going wrong is chiefly to do with real-terms cuts in education budgets, the resultant lack of support and auxiliary staff, an over-reliance on teachers’ goodwill; an environment of mistrust operating in a culture of silence. 
Apart from anything, Scotland’s children deserve better. And the children would be better served by teachers who are properly resourced and who are allowed to get on with the job in hand without extreme external interference.
However, hope reigns. At the end of a recent discussion about future career choices with pupils at the school, one young girl paused for thought and said, ‘A teacher’. But then she has only seen an environment where teachers are trusted, properly resourced and whose professional judgements are valued; an environment of trust operating in a culture of openness.
Rod Grant
Headmaster
5th November 2018

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Kirkcaldy High Street - Closure of Marks & Spencer

The announcement just over a week ago that Marks & Spencer is to leave Kirkcaldy is another blow to an already struggling town centre. Hikes in parking charges, high business rates, free parking at the retail park and changes in consumer purchasing trends, have all hit the high street. 

Hearing Marks & Spencer though is to leave comes as a bigger concern as it being there is undoubtedly what draw footfall to the town centre and in turn leads to business at other, often smaller, retail outlets. 

At next week's Kirkcaldy Area Committee a motion has been tabled by Cllr Richard Watt and I calling for a full and frank discussion. There is already much talk being generated by councillors and local people - the views are wide and varied. Whilst I have some initial thoughts on what has gone wrong and what can be done about it, I very much believe in hearing the voices of local people - therefore, prior to next week's meeting I am looking for thoughts and feedback from people on what they think. 

The Fife Free Press is currently running a survey on the future of the town centre. The link can be found here - https://www.fifetoday.co.uk/news/business/survey-your-opportunity-to-shape-the-future-of-kirkcaldy-high-street-1-4819431


Here is the text of what will be debated next week:

This committee notes with disappointment the closure of the M&S retail store on Kirkcaldy High Street and the lack of a report from officers requested on 30th January on a variety of measures to improve the viability of Kirkcaldy High Street. The committee requests:

• Esplanade redevelopment is suspended until a credible business plan showing third party buy-in and tangible economic benefit to Kirkcaldy is produced.

• A report detailing feasibility and associated cost of removing all parking charges from car parks serving the town centre is brought to the next committee.

• A report detailing possible concessions of town-centre non-domestic rates is brought to the next committee.

• A series of TROs detailing the de-pedestrianisation of the High Street are brought for approval to the next Kirkcaldy Area committee.

****

Monday, 15 October 2018

Primary 1 Assessment - Continued - Comment to Media - October 13 2018

Following on from Fife Council voting to halt Primary 1 assessment I was asked to provide a comment to The Courier.

An SNP MP claimed councillors voting to halt these tests was "political vandalism". Below is the text of the press comment and a link to the article. 

A letter to the media is also attached here. 

https://www.thecourier.co.uk/fp/news/local/fife/744218/fife-councillors-accused-of-political-vandalism-for-move-to-stop-p1-assessments/

Previous comments on Primary 1 assessments can be found at:

http://www.kathleenleslie.co.uk/2018/10/primary-1-assessments.html

http://www.kathleenleslie.co.uk/2018/10/primary-1-assessments-continued.html

A link to the hundreds of concerns raised about Primary 1 Assessment and released under a FOI can be found at this link - https://beta.gov.scot/publications/foi-18-01829/

Press Release:

“These comments are quite simply, astonishing. Last week Councillors from all parties, with the exception of the SNP called for a halt to these tests. This was not some political grandstanding but was based on the evidence presented by teachers to the Education Secretary and the SNSA (the body responsible for setting these tests). There are hundreds of email responses from teaching staff across Scotland calling for a halt to these damaging and unnecessary assessments.”

“The early years of Curriculum for Excellence is supposed to be a play-based learning environment. Instead, with these new tests we have teachers trying to sit with one pupil and do the test whilst trying to also teach the rest of the class. Pupils have become upset and demotivated when instructed to do the assessment and don’t understand what is happening.”

“One response from a Primary 1 teacher in Fife said that the school had had to buy in supply staff simply to cover the hours it was taking to get the test done and with no apparent explanation as to what it was aiming to achieve.”

“These tests are conducted online and immediately disadvantage any child who does not have a grasp of computing skills on entering school, they bare no relation to what is being taught in the classroom and are anything but standardised. Staff have reported that the system generates easier questions if required and some children will simply guess the answer as they find it so stressful.”

“Monitoring the learning of Primary 1 children is not about standardised assessment but about nurturing the social, emotional and cognitive development of the child. There is no evidence to suggest such testing will do anything to raise attainment. I would suggest that Mr Chapman has a read through the email responses to his Education Secretary and instead of attacking opposition politicians he starts listening to what teachers and education professionals are saying.”

“Concerns raised by councillors seemed to be mocked as ‘scaremongering’ by the SNP group who appeared to be oblivious to the growing calls for a halt to these assessments. They claim education is their number one priority but refuse to listen to the concerns of teachers. It really is quite incredible.”


Cllr Kathleen Leslie
Scottish Conservative & Unionist
Group Education Spokesperson

______________

Letter

Dear Sir 

At last week’s Council meeting three motions were presented, all asking for a halt to Primary 1 Assessments. Following a lengthy debate, an amendment was voted for by all, with the exception of the SNP group. The amendment called for the Executive Director of Education & Children’s Services to prepare a report asking how withdrawing from these assessments can be achieved and that Council asks the Scottish Government to withdraw requirements for P1 assessments. This followed on from a Holyrood debate led by Scottish Conservative MSP Liz Smith, calling for a halt to P1 assessment, which was supported by Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens and saw the SNP government defeated. 

These tests are carried out online, immediately disadvantaging any pupil who arrives at school with little or no knowledge of using a computer, these pupils quite often being from deprived backgrounds. The tests eat into teaching time and have resulted in some schools having to buy in supply staff. More worryingly though, children have been left distressed, crying and feeling demotivated. How do we know this? 

One only has to read through the hundreds of responses from teaching staff in a recently released FOI request, to discover the sheer scale of concerns being expressed. Interestingly, but possibly unsurprisingly these comments appeared to be immediately mocked by the SNP group as scaremongering. 

Whilst SNP councillors in Fife claimed there are little if any complaints about Primary 1 tests they should perhaps go and read through the hundreds of emails available on the FOI request, I certainly have. That way they may familiarise themselves with the very real and genuine concerns and be seen to actually listen. 

This attitude though is so typical of the SNP both at the local authority level and their failing government at Holyrood. Centralisation being the key theme. Scotland has seen more and more powers devolved over the past decade but that has been coupled with a government that has sought to increasingly centralise and remove local accountability. 

Fife Council sent a clear message to the SNP government last week; Primary 1 assessment needs to be halted. Lets see if they are listening. 

Yours







Monday, 8 October 2018

Primary 1 Assessments Continued

This post continues on from the previous post on this page - http://www.kathleenleslie.co.uk/2018/10/primary-1-assessments.html

Primary 1 Assessments - Fife Council debate.
Last Thursday 3 motions were presented at full Council on primary 1 assessments. Due to the broad similarities of these, the first motion (the Lib Dems) was taken as the motion and the 2 amendments (the Scottish Conservatives and then Labour) were heard next. The SNP also put up an amendment. 
Following a protracted debate which saw overall support for a halt to these damaging assessments, from all parties with, of course, the exception of the SNP - who seemed to be more concerned that anyone would question their Scottish Government, the vote was held.
Voting procedure saw the Lib Dem motion fall first, then our amendment. This led to a vote for either the Labour amendment or the SNP amendment. Due to a beefed up Labour amendment, which was not really dissimilar at all to ours, the Conservative group, the Lib Dems and Labour all voted together and defeated the SNP. 
I am pleased that Fife has taken a lead on this following the Holyrood vote last month which saw all Opposition parties vote for a Scottish Conservative motion to halt Primary 1 SNSA tests. 
I would also like to thank my colleague Cllr Dominic Nolan for seconding my motion (amendment, as it became), the Conservative group, the Lib Dems and Labour - all of us sent a message to the SNP in Fife - it is time the Education Secretary listened not only to the will of MSPs but also to councillors here in Fife.



The text of the motion and my speech can be found below. In Council, due to my motion becoming an amendment, the speech was an abridged version of this - cut to 5 minutes from 10 mins. Below is the full text. References can be provided upon request (all removed on this due to format of text).

The Motion (which became the Amendment)
That Fife Council believes although good-quality pupil assessment is an essential component of the drive to raise educational standards in Scotland's schools, it acknowledges the will of the recent Parliamentary vote and notes the level of concern which has been raised by teachers, education professionals, parents and MSPs regarding the introduction and delivery of new testing arrangements for Primary 1 pupils. The Council acknowledges that although formal, standardised testing is essential in Primary 4 and Primary 7, it believes that such testing is inappropriate in Primary 1 where it cannot deliver the same meaningful results. Council further questions whether the new Primary 1 tests are in line with the play-based learning philosophy of the early years provision in the Curriculum for Excellence and urges councillors to call on the Scottish Government to heed the will of the majority of MSPs and halt the Primary 1 tests in Fife. The Council further instructs Fife Council officers to explore, under delegated powers, the option of halting Primary 1 assessments in Fife.

“These tests have taken 4 weeks to administer to my Primary 1s, not to mention the drain further up the school on my teachers’ time to administer the tests to P4 and P7. One whole month of lost teaching time. Stressed teachers, distressed learners and angry parents.” The words of one headteacher. 

“Distressed learners” that is what we have – not “fun” as some have described these tests over the past couple of weeks. 

Last month the Education Secretary claimed he wanted a “fact based debate” on Primary 1 assessments. The motion we have before us is based on just that – fact. A growing body of evidence listing concerns with P1 Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSA) has been expressed by teachers, education professionals and the EIS and has been read, listened to and examined by cross-party MSPs at Holyrood. The result being a parliamentary motion, that was supported by all Opposition parties requesting a halt to these Primary 1 assessments. 

Today I am going to talk around the background to the philosophy of Curriculum for Excellence in the early years, the parliamentary vote and some of the experiences of those who have been involved in the administering of these tests. 

There is also the matter of accountability and the power and role of the local authority which appears once again to be challenged by the top-down centralisation agenda that has long been a feature of this Scottish Government. In August, a letter that has been described as “draconian” was issued to all local authorities stating that parents do not have the right to opt their children out of these tests. However, by September a letter from the Scottish Government to all education directors stated: “The SNSAs, in common with virtually all aspects of the Scottish curriculum and its delivery, are not provided for in legislation. This means that they cannot be seen as compulsory, but also there cannot be a legal right for parents to withdraw their children from these assessments”. We do know though, that parents have challenged and this and have withdrawn their children. However, it is my colleague who is going to speak in more detail as to where the responsibility and decision of the local authority sits in regards to SNSA testing for Primary 1, which parent body “Connect” has described as raising a question of “whose child is this”? 

Whilst some may choose to call this “political point-scoring” and “grandstanding” I would instead ask you to consider the arguments against standardised assessment in P1 and why we are calling for Fife Council to instruct officers to explore, under delegated powers, the halting of these tests.

Curriculum for Excellence is built around five levels. The first level being the Early Years – which includes the two years before a child goes to school and Primary 1. If we step back a decade to a document that was produced for all staff in pre-school educational settings and the early years of primary – this was Building the Curriculum 2 – and I quote from it: “research indicates that there is no long-term advantage to children when there is an over-emphasis on systematic teaching before 6 or 7 years of age. A key message is that approaches to fostering learning need to be flexible to take account of the needs of the child, and will change as children develop”. This of course was prior to standardised national testing of Primary 1 children, testing that has often left youngsters traumatised, which I will come onto later. 

Continuing with the evidential, a paper produced in 2013 followed children from predominantly state schools in New Zealand to examine whether Reading Instruction Age (RIA) had an impact on the later reading achievement of youngsters, dependent on whether they had begun reading at 5 or 7 years old. I can provide the link to this paper if anyone would like to read further. The findings though demonstrated that by the age of 11 the difference in reading levels had disappeared and those who began to read later had a better reading comprehension overall.

Indeed, the evidence on the need for a continuum of play-based learning through the early years is growing. University of Cambridge educationalist and psychologist, David Whitebread has stated that: “Studies have consistently demonstrated the superior learning and motivation arising from playful, as opposed to instructional, approaches to learning.” More concerning though, he goes on to say that documented studies have provided a link between loss of play opportunities and increased indicators of stress and mental health problems”.

Upstart Scotland, which advocates a statutory play-based stage, has stated that due to lifestyle changes over recent decades, most children starting school today have had had fewer opportunities for active, self-directed play than in the past. Globally only around 12% of children begin school at 4-5 years old. Countries such as Finland and Switzerland have a kindergarten approach that is inclusive up to 7 years old – yet there is no study that indicates this has had a negative impact on long-term attainment and achievement.

Parallel to less opportunities for self-directed play Upstart Scotland identifies there having been “significant increases in mental health problems among children and young people”.

This leads us onto the matter of stress. Much focus is made of the mental health of young people and rightly so. Our Minds Matter is one such initiative here in Fife which there has been much achieved and last month a policy conference on Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) was held in Glasgow. Child well-being and mental health is clearly on the educational agenda however, when assessments being conducted in Primary 1 are described as “difficult and cruel” – the words of one headteacher in Edinburgh, there is surely, cause for a rethink?

Whilst a Scottish Government spokesperson described the tests as “interesting and easy to do” the experience has not been met so positively by a growing voice of opposition. The children’s services organisation Children in Scotland described the tests as “at best a distraction and at worst stressful and a waste of time for children and teachers”. Play Scotland has stated that it is “tests of opportunities, exploration and everyday adventures” that matter not academic tests in Primary 1.

It is as a result of this mounting evidence that the Scottish Conservatives changed their position – we listened, we recognised these tests were not in the best interests of Primary 1 learners. Will the Education Secretary listen though to concerned teachers and parents? 

I was aware that an FOI request had been made by Willie Rennie MSP on Primary 1 assessment, - baseline assessment which has been described by the EIS as “hampering a child’s education growth. Rather than just reading the summarised versions on the various news outlets I decided to go through these. Let me quote here some feedback to the Cabinet Secretary and the SNSA from teaching staff. Again, I can provide the link for anyone who would like to read these in detail.

“The only possible tiny piece of silver lining I can fathom that could come of this 'data' being submitted and analysed is that perhaps schools that score low (possibly ours) will be given extra resources or funding.” Imagine that – a low score may have the “advantage” of some extra funding! 

A comment by one class teacher makes for harrowing reading:It is not an overstatement to say that I feel I have betrayed relationships and harmed them with our children, particularly our most vulnerable, by putting them through these tests. They are completely inappropriate and have left even those children who are flying and are ahead of where we would expect, upset and worried. Comments like “I’m no good”, “I can’t do this”, “Why are you making me do this?” are common.” 

What of schools where a large proportion of children are identified as coming from a low SIMD decile? One member of staff said: “In the SIMD decile in which I work, children do not have access to computers and laptops and so require support to be able to navigate the mouse to the answer they wish to select, after the question has been read to them, along with the selection of answers - none of which have any relevance at that moment in time because it is a stand-alone task, with no context surrounding it.” These tests are conducted online so immediately any child with no access to IT equipment at home is immediately disadvantaged.  As we know children from deprived backgrounds are often not so well prepared for formal learning when starting primary schools. A play-based learning environment allows such youngsters to settle – standardised online testing will not. 

Recent claims have been made around the cost of these tests. Here is a quote from a Primary 1 teacher at a school here in Fife

Logistically it has been very difficult and expensive for the service to undertake the SNSA. Contrary to what you’ve been quoted saying- it is not possible to deliver the SNSA in the classroom... certainly not putting a learner on the computer and supporting them one to one while delivering a play based curriculum. The classroom is too busy and distracting and I have found it very difficult to comprehend supporting each child one to one on the test while running a classroom of 24 others with no other support. 

How did the school tackle this when the classroom is too busy? This is how: 
“My school, like others, has opted to hire in supply staff to take learners for testing. This has been at a huge expense… Our budgets are tight enough as it is without the added weight of supply staff to implement a test with limited use which we, as teachers at the chalk face, did not ask for”.

This is rather interesting considering claims made in the Dunfermline Press by the Convenor that the testing is going to save Fife Council £100,000 a year. 

The teacher finishes by speaking of some of the children being distressed and crying whilst doing the test.

These comments speak of the harmful impact of these tests with children distressed and crying, the time and resources required, the cost due to some schools having to bring in supply staff and, through reading the whole document, I was struck by the fact that whilst the tests claim to be “standardised” they are anything but. 

Many children, often from deprived backgrounds enter school with no computing skills so require additional assistance. Some schools buddy children up with a pupil from Primary 7 to work through the test with them. Others have commented on social media forums that some schools have support staff direct children to the correct answers. 

Therefore, on the basis of international studies which push for a more play-based learning environment which I do believe the original spirit of the Curriculum for Excellence in the early years was aiming to do, the findings of FOI requests which provide the words of teachers, parents and educational professionals across Scotland, the views of the EIS, and the cross-party support to halt these damaging tests for Primary 1 pupils, I would ask you to support this motion or in the words of one headteacher: 

“I beg you to halt this damaging endeavour. The information gained is useless, the distress caused is massive and the damage done to relationships with families and children cannot be overstated.”
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