Revealed: Scottish Government’s lead expert distances herself from controversial education policy


Further doubt over extent of Scottish Government consultation based on email exchanges based with just two education experts

ONE of only two education experts who submitted written evidence to a Scottish Government consultation which led to controversial proposals for the reintroduction of standardised testing in Scottish schools has distanced herself from the policy.

Sue Ellis, professor of education at Strathclyde University, told CommonSpace that elements of the evidence she gave to the Scottish Government in 2015 in three emails had not been accepted.

She said: “There are certainly aspects of my advice that were not accepted.”

However, she added that there were multiple sources supplying evidence to Scottish Government consultation processes: “In Scotland we also tend to generate ideas from different sources and no academic should sit in an ivory tower – that system teaches academic humility if nothing else.

“It's all about what's going to be useful to parents, teachers and local authorities,” she said.

Last year, CommonSpace broke the news that the written part of the Scottish Government’s consultation was made up of just four emails, three from Ellis and one from Professor Louise Hayward of Glasgow University.

Background read: The four emails that led to @ScotGov's controversial standardised testing plan

The consultation was meant to inform government policy aimed at closing the gap in performance between Scotland’s poorest and most well-off students, and decided on the reintroduction of standardised tests across Scotland for pupils in primaries one, five and seven and the third year of secondary school.

The plans for standardised testing, launched last September as part of the Scottish Government’s National Education Framework, have come in for criticism from teaching unions, who fear that they will have a detrimental impact on children’s education and could ultimately result in school league tables.

Ellis’ comments come after a freedom of information (FoI) request by education writer and campaigner James McEnaney was upheld by the Scottish Information Commissioner after a year-long attempt by the Scottish Government to keep the consultation process secret.

Ellis’ recommendations include that the testing not be based on the Curriculum for Excellence, the Scottish curriculum introduced in 2010-11, and that they not include a written element. However, official procurement documents for the standardised testing system show that the tests will be based on CfE, and that a written element will be included.

Section of Ellis’s email obtained under FoI dealing with advising against tests based on CfE

Ellis’s claims that some of her advice was “not accepted” have stoked further criticism among educationalists and opposition politicians about the nature and extensiveness of the consultation process that resulted in the plans for standardised testing

Bill Boyd, a literacy consultant and former English teacher said: “It seems quite clear from what little evidence we have that the government had already made up its mind on national testing, based on goodness knows what, since all the evidence from countries which have relied on these tests has been negative.”

Scottish Labour education spokesperson Iain Gray said: “It is incredible that in the very week Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney paraded education ‘advisers’ flown in from all over the world, we discover that their key education policy was made up on the basis of almost no educational advice or research at all.  Indeed, the government’s national standardised assessment policy, always shambolic, is now revealed to be contrary to the limited advice they did receive.

“The fact that that ministers had to have this information dragged out of them by order of the Information Commissioner shows that they know perfectly well that they are making critical policy on schools up as they go along, and they have tried to hide it.

“Scotland’s children, parents and teachers deserve better than this, and they will pay the price of a cack handed approach to policy making.

“Only last week John Swinney had to issue guidelines to teachers to ‘liberate’ them from the consequences of his own government’s policies.  Yet he continues to pursue reforms with no basis in teachers’ experience or educational research.”

Section of Ellis’ email obtained under FoI recommending against a writting element of the tests

Ross Greer MSP, education spokesperson for the Scottish Greens, said: “If we’re serious about closing the attainment gap we must put aside unnecessary additional assessments – as the government’s own guidance for teachers recommends, without any apparent self-awareness.

“This latest evidence will add to the very reasonable concerns expressed by parents, teachers and academics about the potential negative impact on youngsters from this continued pursuit of national testing. It seems advice on testing was ignored, and no specific advice was sought on numeracy.”

The Liberal Democrats' education spokesperson added: “Ministers were told to take time, have teachers properly test the proposed regime first and not to narrow Curriculum for Excellence which is broad based. It is now worryingly clear that the government have so far ignored this sensible advice. Failing to listen to informed experts is not the way forward for Scotland’s children, teachers and schools.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon today reiterated her request that the the success of her leadership be judged on the government’s plans to reform education and close the attainment gap, as she set out her plan for government.

“It seems quite clear from what little evidence we have that the government had already made up its mind on national testing, based on goodness knows what.” Bill Boyd

Responding to the criticisms, a Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We listened to all views during our many in-depth discussions with parents, teaching unions, academics and education professionals and those views were used to shape the draft National Improvement Framework, including our approach to standardised assessments.

“We continue to engage on policy development and implementation as a matter of course and the assessment materials will be thoroughly pre-tested in schools across a number of local authorities before they are introduced in August 2017.

“We have been very clear that will not return to high stakes testing. Teachers will use the results to see how children are progressing and to help tailor future learning plans and support for individual children. The results will provide just one source of information for teachers to consider, along with a range of other evidence, when deciding whether individual children have achieved Curriculum for Excellence levels.”

Pictures courtesy of timlewisnm, James McEnaney

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