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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 05 September 2018

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Scottish National Standardised Assessments, Programme for Government 2018-19, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, University of Stirling (University for Sporting Excellence)


Scottish National Standardised Assessments

The next item of business is a statement by John Swinney on Scottish national standardised assessments. As usual, the cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


I welcome this opportunity to make a statement on the Scottish national standardised assessments.

A key principle of Scottish education is that assessment is an essential part of our approach to learning. It allows teachers to understand pupils’ progress and to plan the next phase of their learning and teaching. Assessment is therefore a key tool to inform teachers’ professional judgment of the needs of the pupils whom they teach.

Almost all local authorities in Scotland have been making use of some form of standardised assessment for a number of years. By having national assessments, we can now ensure that a consistent approach is being taken. That greatly helps in ensuring effective moderation of standards throughout the country, which is a crucial component of our determination to deliver excellence and equity for all.

The value of assessment was set out last week by Professor Sue Ellis of the University of Strathclyde. She said:

“We know that there is a big difference in children’s attainment when they start school and that difference grows and gets wider as children move through the school system, so we do need some way of tracking that and checking it”.

Most councils in Scotland already had primary 1 assessments for some years. In fact, the majority did not simply carry out one assessment of P1 pupils; they did that twice, at different points during the year. The reason for that was that teachers found them to be a useful source of information for tracking and checking the progress of the pupils whom Sue Ellis mentioned and for planning future teaching and learning to meet the needs of individual pupils.

The national assessments are simply a consistent tool to provide the same information to teachers. Unlike the old assessments, they are better aligned to the curriculum for excellence, which makes the reports that teachers receive even more valuable.

On average, the P1 assessments take 22 minutes for numeracy and 27 minutes for literacy. Delivered as part of routine classroom activity, they should not place children under any undue stress.

Last week, I published our user review of the first year of the assessments, which drew on a range of comments and feedback. I want to highlight some key points.

Some 578,000 assessments were carried out across P1, P4, P7 and secondary 3. I thank pupils and staff for all their efforts. That number represents around 94 per cent of the total number of possible assessments. I think that that strikes the appropriate balance between the presumption that the majority of pupils will undertake the assessments and the exercise of teacher judgment about whether it is in the best interests of an individual child to participate.

The user review received a range of comments. We know that many teachers find the reports on how children have done to be very useful, with high-quality diagnostic information on the strengths and challenges of individual young people, and we know that many children and young people found the assessments a positive experience because they were deployed in a relaxed way as part of routine classroom activity. However, I know that that was not the case everywhere. We received clear feedback that raised a number of concerns about the assessments. That feedback is a concern, particularly where the assessment of a young pupil was not viewed as a positive experience. No one wants any child to find the assessment stressful or upsetting.

In recognising that that has been the experience for a small number—the user review recognises the concerns that have been expressed by Educational Institute of Scotland members and others—it is important to keep those matters in context. The number of responses to the EIS survey was relatively small—about 460 people responded out of a total teaching population of more than 51,500. Not all of the 460 responses raised concerns—a significant number said positive and constructive things about the assessments. I am not surprised by that. When I speak to teachers, it is clear that, when the assessments are set up and run appropriately, they are a benefit in our education system.

However, I accept that this was the first year of a brand-new system of assessments. We can enhance and improve things to make the system better for pupils and teachers, and the user review sets out a number of positive changes that are being introduced this year. I will highlight three measures.

First, the voice that was missing from the user review and the EIS survey was that of children and young people. We will address that by including, at the end of each assessment, a short age-appropriate survey for children and young people that encourages them to give feedback on their experience. Secondly, we will establish a P1 practitioner improvement forum to share practice and consider how to enhance the overall assessment model. Thirdly, as we had planned, about one third of the questions in all assessments will be replenished, to ensure that they appropriately assess how children and young people are performing. I am confident that the changes that we are making will enhance the experience for children and young people and improve the information that is available to teachers.

I want the enhancements to benefit pupils who are in Gaelic-medium education. I have decided to roll out national standardised assessments to Gaelic-medium education only once the relevant lessons from the user review have been taken into account in their development. That means that the assessments will be available in Gaelic-medium education later this calendar year.

There has been discussion recently about whether parents have the right to withdraw their children from the assessments. Earlier this week, the Scottish Government and the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland issued a joint statement to provide clarity on that.

The Scottish Government and ADES see the assessments as an integral part of everyday learning in P1, P4, P7 and S3 that is delivered as part of the duty to provide education. In common with virtually all aspects of the Scottish curriculum and its delivery, the SNSAs are not explicitly provided for in legislation. That is in keeping with the long tradition of a non-statutory curricular approach in Scotland. It means not only that the assessments are not compulsory but that there is no legal right for parents to withdraw their child from the assessments.

In fact, there is no statutory right for parents to withdraw their child from any aspect of schooling other than parts of religious observance and instruction. The position on standardised assessments is therefore the same as that for literacy and numeracy. There is no explicit statutory provision that requires a school to teach them—Scotland has never had that—but the idea that that means that schools are not required to teach pupils to read and write is patently ridiculous. The same is true of standardised assessments.

In practice, any parents or carers who have concerns about their child’s participation should discuss that with their child’s school. It has been the case since the assessments were introduced that a child should not undertake an assessment if doing so would not be in their best interests. It is—rightly—for teachers, in discussion with parents, to determine when that is the case.

That position is consistent with what we have said in correspondence with local authorities, schools and parents and is consistent with our joint statement with ADES. It is also consistent with the recent letter from a deputy director in the Scottish Government’s learning directorate to directors of education. In relation to that letter, I make it clear that my officials sought a view from the Society of Local Authority Lawyers and Administrators in Scotland on the withdrawal of children from SNSAs to confirm that our understanding was aligned with that of local authority partners.

The deputy director’s letter to directors of education set out the position as he understood it and was sent in good faith. The substance of that letter on parental opt-outs from the assessments is consistent with our joint statement with ADES.

It is important, as the National Parent Forum of Scotland said last week, that there is a clear understanding of the purpose of the assessments for the benefit of parents and carers. They are not “high stakes tests” but diagnostic assessments to support learning and teaching. Data from them will not be published or used for accountability—their purpose is to inform learning and teaching. They are aligned to curriculum for excellence and, at P1, are complementary to the play-based approach that is central to the early level curriculum.

Children should not be prepared for the assessments. There is no pass or fail. Their purpose is not to determine whether a child has “mastery” of a subject but to help teachers to determine future learning and teaching. Teachers’ professional judgment of children’s progress is key. The role of the assessments is to provide a consistent approach across the country to support our desire to deliver excellence and equity for all.

I remain committed to the assessments at all stages. The changes that we have announced in the user review will help to improve the system to address the concerns that were raised during the first year of operation. I am confident that, as we continue to refine and enhance the assessments, they will prove to be a positive experience for children and young people, and will provide a range of valuable information for teachers and parents.

The cabinet secretary will now take questions.

I thank the cabinet secretary for making a statement about an issue that has caused considerable confusion to parents, and for forwarding to us the most recent letter of clarification, which was signed jointly by the Scottish Government and ADES.

Last week, a letter that was sent by the Scottish Government’s deputy director, Graeme Logan, to local authority directors of education stated that the Scottish Government had taken legal advice from the local authorities’ legal body, SOLAR, with regard to the rights of parents to withdraw their children from primary 1 tests. However, SOLAR refuted that it had provided any such legal advice, and we learned at this morning’s meeting of the Education and Skills Committee that the Scottish Government admits that it had been wrong to imply that any legal advice of that nature had been taken.

Did the cabinet secretary sign off the letter that Mr Logan issued last week in which the misleading information appeared? At what stage did he become aware that a mistake had been made?

The subsequent letter to directors of education that was issued this morning says that none of the standardised tests at P1, P4, P7 and S3 is compulsory, but that the tests are part of local authorities’ duties to provide education. Given the Scottish Government’s previous insistence that standardised testing is absolutely essential to raising attainment in our classrooms—a point with which I agree—are teachers now free to decide whether a class of children will sit the tests? Will the results of the non-compulsory standardised tests be used as the key measure to determine whether the Scottish Government is making progress in narrowing the attainment gap?

I did not sign off the letter that was issued by the deputy director to directors of education, but I take full responsibility for it, because I am a minister in the Scottish Government and it is right that I take full responsibility in that way.

We did not seek legal advice from SOLAR. We discussed the legal position that we hold to—which has been consistent throughout all the Government’s communication on the matter—with representatives of SOLAR, but, as I explained to the committee this morning, an error was made in our handling of the matter, in that we expressed a view that we believed to have been expressed by SOLAR when, in fact, SOLAR does not express such opinions. I can only apologise to Parliament for the events that took place in that respect. I take responsibility for that, because I should take responsibility for it.

However, I stress that the key point is that the substance of the message in the letter from the deputy director has consistently been the substance of the Government’s position on the matter, which was consistent with other advice that the Government had taken at the time.

Liz Smith’s final point was on the issue of whether classes will take the assessments. I have made it as clear as I can that standardised assessments are part of the routine process of learning of young people in Scottish education, just as acquiring the skills of literacy and numeracy is part of their learning experience.

The Government expects that pupils will undertake standardised assessments at P1, P4, P7 and S3, but, as the evidence that I have marshalled in front of Parliament today makes clear, not all pupils took the assessments, because teachers were able to exercise judgment on whether it was in the interests of individual pupils to do so. That reliance on teacher judgment is as it should be.

Liz Smith’s last point is about the information that is gathered to determine whether we are closing the poverty-related attainment gap. As Liz Smith will know, last December, the Government published the national improvement framework, which sets out the measures by which we will be held to account on whether we have succeeded in closing that gap. The measures relate to the identification by teachers of whether young people within our education system have reached the early, first, second or third level of curriculum for excellence.

Standardised assessments will inform the teacher judgments, but the final publication does not rest exclusively on the outcome of those assessments.

I thank the cabinet secretary for early sight of his statement.

The education secretary clearly missed the lesson about stopping digging when in a hole. When faced with evidence of stress among four-year-olds and five-year-olds caused by the tests, with teachers’ testimony that the tests are time-consuming and of little educational worth, and with a campaign by parents to boycott them, he carries on regardless. The tests should, at least in P1, be suspended. I believe that that is the view of Parliament, which I hope we will have a chance to demonstrate as soon as possible.

The tests do not command the confidence of teachers. Will the cabinet secretary tell us how many schools have replaced the old and trusted diagnostic assessments that they were using, as he said, and how many have simply added on his national assessments because he told them to and they had to use them?

The purpose of the tests remains confused. The First Minister has repeatedly told us that the assessments replace the Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy, that they will monitor progress towards closing the attainment gap, and that they will compare school with school and authority with authority. However, if they are an integral part of everyday learning, they cannot do that statistically. Once and for all, will the cabinet secretary confirm whether the tests are diagnostic assessments or are for monitoring standards? They cannot be both.

On Iain Gray’s last point, the purpose of the standardised assessments is to ensure that teachers are able use them to enhance the learning experience of young people and their experience of teaching, and to identify where young people individually have deficiencies and face challenges and where they need support.

The difference between that approach and the survey approach that Mr Gray argued for over the summer is that survey information can give us only a general picture and not a specific picture of the needs of individual young people. I want to make sure—this is the fundamental issue—that our education system is equipped with information that is effectively moderated around the country so that we can be confident that the right standards are being applied, and ensure that when young people have access to an education system that is driven by excellence and equity in one part of the country, a guarantee that they will get the same can be given to children, young people and their families in another part of the country.

The purpose of standardised assessments is to focus on young people’s individual needs in order to enhance learning, and to give teachers confidence about moderation of standards around the country. Only through that device can we have confidence that levels of achievement are being delivered by young people that demonstrate that we are closing the poverty-related attainment gap.

That is the purpose of standardised assessments. They are vital because they help to inform the interventions that are required to support learning and teaching for young people in Scotland.

As other members have done, I thank the Deputy First Minister for advance sight of his statement.

The weight of international evidence is not behind the Deputy First Minister and his standardised assessments. In the case of P1 tests, it is quite clear that a majority in Parliament wants to see them go. Sooner or later, that is what we will vote for. Will the Scottish Government just cut its losses and scrap testing of P1 children?

I have set out my position, which is that I remain committed to the assessments at all levels in Scottish education. I do not want a situation in which we do not have the chance to identify at the earliest possible opportunity in a child’s formal education where the child might face particular learning challenges. The assessments produce sophisticated diagnostic information about the educational challenges of young people. I want such information to be available so that we can, at the earliest opportunity, act to close the attainment gap.

I do not want to preside over an education system in which the needs of children are left unmet. Mr Greer consistently argues his position on ensuring that every child’s needs are met in our system. I respect him for that. I am simply trying to apply that in relation to this issue as well, such that when young people come into our education system, they come into a play-based curriculum at the early stage. I want them to be assessed on the basis of that curriculum. If they have educational requirements, I want them to be addressed pronto, and not left unaddressed so that the gap between their performance and that of other children increases. That is why I want standardised assessments at P1. It is an educational rationale that is supported by significant international evidence, into the bargain, which is why I ask Parliament to consider carefully the issues that I present today as justification for ensuring that we have the assessments to protect the educational opportunities of children and young people.

I, too, thank the cabinet secretary for the advance copy of his statement.

I must say that I profoundly disagree with the contention that testing five-year-old boys and girls is consistent with play-based learning. Far more important than my view is the fact that many educationists, experts and—more to the point—teachers do not agree. I therefore disagree with the assessment that Mr Swinney has just given to Ross Greer. Also, in the weight of evidence that we have all read on the usefulness of data—Mr Swinney earlier referred to the marshalled evidence—there is quote after quote after quote about whether such data is of any merit whatever.

I therefore politely suggest that the cabinet secretary reflect on that. Will he reflect on the fact that he has not made the case for testing four-year-old and five-year-old girls and boys? The majority of the arguments say that it does not add to teachers’ experience and that—more to the point—it will do nothing to close the gaps that we know exist in education and which desperately need to be addressed.

On Tavish Scott’s final point about whether the assessments help us in our efforts to close the attainment gap, I take a different view. All the evidence that I have looked at—and which drives Government policy in a wide variety of areas in early intervention—indicates that the earlier we identify and address challenges that young people face, the more quickly we will take steps to close the attainment gap.

With teachers, I looked at the assessments when they were at development stage. I was struck by the teachers’ reaction to the diagnostic information that was being presented as a consequence of the tests. The information demonstrated clearly areas where young people required support to enhance their educational performance. The assessments are therefore an integral part of trying to address the challenges and issues that young people face.

Opinion will, of course, be divided on those points. We can all marshal quotations that say that tests are a good thing, or that they are not. I appeal to Parliament to look at the role of the assessments in informing improvement of learning and teaching in Scotland, with a view to ensuring that teachers are equipped with all the information that they need to judge the educational opportunities of children and young people.

I hope that Parliament will consider those issues in the manner in which I have set them out today, because they represent a strong opportunity for us to ensure that we work with schools around the country to take all possible actions to close the attainment gap in Scottish education.

The opening questioners have had the opportunity to set out their parties’ positions. I will welcome shorter questions and appropriately shorter answers as we progress with consideration of the statement.

We have heard a lot of talk from Opposition parties about why the assessments are not a good idea. Will the cabinet secretary outline some of the suggestions that he has received from Opposition parties on how we can close the stubborn attainment gap without clear and consistent evidence on children’s learning?

The Government is making a range of interventions to close the poverty-related attainment gap, including work that we are undertaking on the Scottish attainment challenge and pupil equity funding. Schools are taking a variety of approaches to close the gap—some are enhancing literacy and numeracy approaches, some are supporting a nurturing approach to overcome challenges that young people face in their education, and others are introducing outdoor learning to the curriculum and strengthening the experiences of young people in the outdoors.

There is a debate to be had about the measures that we can take and interventions that we can make to close the poverty-related attainment gap. I am interested in having that debate in Parliament. It is in the interests of us all to make sure that the education opportunities of young people are fulfilled as a consequence of the actions that we take.

On behalf of parents, I ask the cabinet secretary to clarify whether the tests, as he has previously described them, for P1 students are tests as we have known them to be. Where do they stand in the context of the Scottish Government being able to decide whether Scottish schools’ attainment has improved?

First, they are called Scottish national standardised assessments. They are not tests—they are assessments of the educational issues and experiences of young people, and they are used to inform enhancements to learning and teaching practice. That is their purpose. From the assessments, teachers will make a judgment about whether a young person has reached the early, first, second or third level. That information flows into the performance framework that I talked about in my answer to Liz Smith’s question, and which will determine whether we are closing the poverty-related attainment gap. Teachers’ judgments inform the decision about whether a young person has reached a particular level, and the standardised assessments will assist teachers in forming judgments in a way that is consistent around the country.

Does the cabinet secretary have any information, or plans to gather information, regarding how confident schools are in dealing with situations in which parents or carers have concerns about their child taking part in the assessments? Is there any guidance from the Government for the teachers on the best way to approach that?

The Government has made available to individual schools guidance that sets out that the assessments should be undertaken in a manner that is consistent with the educational experience of young people in schools. The P1 assessment, for example, should be undertaken as part of the routine approach to learning. I saw some assessments being undertaken that were consistent with the use of iPad technology in classrooms, which is a relatively routine element of the educational experience for P1 pupils, and teachers deployed the assessments in exactly that fashion.

If a parent is in any way concerned about their young person’s experience with the standardised assessment, my advice, which has been consistent, is that they should raise issues directly with the individual school.

As I demonstrated with the data that I set out to Parliament, 94 per cent of all the possible assessments have been undertaken. Teacher judgment is being deployed to ensure that assessments are not being undertaken where it is not appropriate for young people to undertake them, which is an example of us relying, as we should do, on the appropriate judgment of teachers.

I want short questions and short answers, please.

When discussing the pedagogic method in the Education and Skills Committee this morning, Larry Flanagan, the general secretary of the EIS, said:

“if we spent half the time and energy on promoting formative assessment practice in our schools that we have spent on promoting the Scottish national standardised assessments we would be in a much better place in terms of assessment practice in our schools.”

Given Mr Flanagan’s comments, does the cabinet secretary agree that more support and resourcing should be given to teachers to use the pedagogic method, rather than testing?

Scottish national standardised assessments are formative assessments. That is what they are—they are designed to inform teacher judgment. If they were the other type of assessment, they would be summative. If they were summative, they would be high-stakes testing. That is not what they are.

The fundamental point is that the assessments contribute to teacher judgment, and teachers across Scotland have been supported to deploy the assessments effectively in the classroom.

Can the cabinet secretary outline how often assessments like the SNSAs were used previously? If, as he mentioned in his statement, the majority of councils did their own assessments, did that lead to different councils using different assessments and, therefore, creating an unclear picture of attainment levels across the country?

Obviously, different forms of assessment will apply different standards. The key point about the Scottish national standardised assessments is that they are aligned with curriculum for excellence levels. As I have just said in answer to Alison Harris, curriculum for excellence levels are judgments about whether we are closing the poverty-related attainment gap, as part of a wider suite of information.

We need to have teacher judgment informed by the assessments to ensure that we have consistent standards across the country, so that, whether a young pupil is going into a school in Paisley in Mr Adam’s constituency, or one in Perth in my constituency, we are operating to the same standards and can confidently say that we are delivering a system that is driven by the values of excellence and equity for all, in all parts of the country.

Can the cabinet secretary set out what he thinks are the exceptional circumstances in which it would not be in a child’s best interest to do the assessment? I know that he places high importance on teacher judgment, but, given that teachers and parents did not ask for the tests, it would be useful to know some examples. Also, has any assessment been made of the 6 per cent who have not taken part this year, in order to understand why not?

Mr Mundell put forward the proposition that teachers and parents had not asked for these assessments. I remind him that the Conservative Party did. That has rather been missed in this whole debate. The Conservative Party argued for a considerable length of time that we needed standardised assessments across the country. [Interruption.] Mr Mundell is saying, “Not for P1”, which obliges me to say that when the First Minister set out the programme for government in 2015 she said:

“We will introduce new national standardised assessments for pupils in primaries 1, 4 and 7, and in the third year of secondary school.”

In response to that statement by the First Minister, Ruth Davidson said:

“I am pleased that our repeated and sustained calls for standardised assessments to be introduced in schools have been heeded.”—[Official Report, 1 September 2015; c 18, 31.]

Then, in its manifesto in 2016, the Conservative Party said:

“Over the last parliament, we have pushed the SNP to accept standardised testing for pupils”.

Mr Mundell is not in a strong position to say to me that nobody wanted these assessments, because his party argued for them.

However, having said all of that, it is important that I say that teachers should be left free to exercise their professional judgment on whether it is appropriate for a pupil to be involved in standardised assessments. The data that I have shared with Parliament today makes it clear that, in 6 per cent of the total number of possible assessments, that judgment was exercised and pupils did not participate. We can certainly have a look at the 6 per cent to see what underlies it, but what that demonstrates is that the necessary flexibility to respond to the circumstances of individual children and young people that should exist in a system of this type is implicit in the system.

I welcome the statement from the cabinet secretary, particularly the commitment to ensure that our young people’s voices are heard. Will he expand on when the primary 1 practitioner improvement forum will be established and what work it will carry out?

We will establish the forum during this school year, to ensure that we understand, hear, appreciate and respond to the issues that P1 practitioners raise through their experience.

Obviously, there has been a lot of experience in the first year, and in my statement today I set out a number of changes that we have made in recognition of the experience of the first year of operation. My mind is not at all closed to making further changes, if they are required, in response to practitioner feedback. I would be happy to engage with members of the Parliament on exactly how we ensure that the Government takes forward any improvements and enhancements that can be made.

Thank you. I am afraid that that is all that we have time for—we have already run five minutes over time. I apologise to Johann Lamont and Willie Coffey; we will not be able to take their questions.