Monday, 8 October 2018

Primary 1 Assessments Continued

This post continues on from the previous post on this page -

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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