‘Why no independent review before P1 testing began?’: Questions raised over timing of announcement

Ben Wray

Opposition parties claim the Deputy First Minister had continued to “defy” the will of the Scottish Parliament, which voted to end P1 testing

A LEADING campaigner against standardised assessment of primary ones has questioned John Swinney’s decision to launch an independent review over one year after testing of four and five year olds began, arguing there was no solid evidence base for the policy when it was introduced.

The Deputy First Minister announced an independent review into P1 standardised assessments on Thursday [25 October], after the Scottish Parliament voted to scrap them last month.

Swinney, who is also Cabinet Secretary for Education & Skills, issued a statement to the parliament chamber, stating: “I acknowledge that Parliament has formally taken a position that P1 assessments should be halted.

“But I also contend we must give due consideration to the established practice of the overwhelming majority of local authorities who carried out a form of P1 assessment believing that to be in the best interests of pupils.

“We face two competing considerations.

“I have therefore decided to commission an independent review of the approach to P1 assessments within the context of the National Improvement Framework. The objective of the review will be to “reconsider the evidence”, as the Parliamentary motion asked me to.”

TIMELINE: From announcement to boycott – how the Scottish Govt’s flagship standardised testing policy became so controversial

But Sue Palmer from Upstart Scotland, which campaigns for a kindergarten stage for 3-7 year old’s, told CommonSpace: “Why didn’t we have an independent review of the evidence before Scotland started testing P1 children in literacy and numeracy was introduced?

“Upstart Scotland contacted John Swinney back in 2015 to point out the massive amount of evidence against such a policy but he wouldn’t listen. Huge amounts of money have been spent since 2015 developing these pointless tests, not to mention the distress and disruption they caused in the schools this spring. Now we’ve got another year of them while his committee reports. It’s an extremely graceless way of backing down.”

CommonSpace reported in November 2015 that the evidence base for the introduction of standardised assessments consisted of four emails from two education advisers, neither of whom explicitly endorsed the policy when contacted by CommonSpace.

Questioned on the consultation process at the time, the Scottish Government FoI unit confirmed that “the formal consultation period on the framework itself did not begin until after the first minister’s announcement” of the standardised assessments policy.

READ MORE – Exclusive: Campaigners call on Scottish Govt to release legal advice on testing

Although the Scottish Government insisted that a series of informal meetings on the topic had taken place, it faced further criticism for refusing to confirm who the participants in these meetings were, and stating that no minutes of the meetings had been taken.

Opposition parties responded to the statement by criticising the Deputy First Minister for “defying” the parliament by not scrapping the tests, which will continue for the year 2018/19 before the review publishes its findings before next year’s parliamentary summer recess. The review will include the option of advising that the P1 assessments are scrapped, Swinney said.

Scottish Labour spokesperson, Iain Gray, said Swinney had “defied this parliament” due to his “denial, stubbornness and hubris”.

“What on earth gives him the right to defy this parliament?” He asked.

This was backed up by Scottish Greens Education spokesperson Ross Greer, who questioned why the Deputy First Minister thinks “he has the right to pick and choose when he defies this parliament”.

READ MORE: As Holyrood votes to scrap P1 testing, campaigners call for ‘progressive education’

Swinney said he had taken account of the parliament’s call to reconsider the evidence with the announcement of the independent review, but that he had to balance parliament’s will with the needs of Scotland’s schools.

Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Tavish Scott, questioned the need for another review after the Deputy First Minister had already published a Scottish Government review of standardised assessments after their first year of implementation:

“Fifty-eight days ago John Swinney published what he said was an evidence-based review and it was a whitewash. Now he wants another review.

“Teachers say national testing of five year old boys and girls add nothing to their knowledge of the child’s progress. So why are primary school teachers, parents and even the government’s educational advisors wrong and John Swinney is right?”

Standardised assessments are literacy and numeracy tests carried out by P1, P4, P7 and S3 levels.

READ MORE – Hilary Long: Tackling poverty outside the school gates is the best route to addressing educational disadvantage

In August, freedom of information requests submitted to the teachers union EIS by the Liberal Democrats revealed that feedback from teachers on the tests detailed adverse impacts on the mental health of young children in particular.

In 172 pages of comments from members, teachers described the tests asunnecessary and cruel” and said they “completely contradict” approaches focussed on the mental wellbeing of children.

EIS assistant secretary Andrea Bradley said the feedback the union had received indicated that teachers saw P1 tests as “inappropriate”, “unnecessarily stressful” and “an inhibitor rather than an aid to their learning”.

The EIS supported the Play Not Tests campaign in April that was backed by former child commissioner Tam Baillie and Upstart Scotland and which called for a boycott of the assessments.

Picture courtesy of the Scottish Government

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