I’M sure John Swinney would agree that when Mrs Thatcher used the phrase “The lady’s not for turning”, it was a sign of hubris and stubbornness rather than strength. A real sign of strength is when a politician is prepared to listen to advice and change a policy accordingly.

It is disturbing, therefore, that Mr Swinney seems determined to fly in the face of advice from his International Council of Education Advisers, the Educational Institute of Scotland, Cosla, parents’ groups, headteachers and teachers, concerning his current attempts to reform Scottish education and to close the gap.

These groups are not opponents of the government. Indeed, they share Mr Swinney’s desire to improve the education system for all pupils, especially those who fail to fulfil their potential because of factors associated with poverty and disadvantage. So, when the International Council issues “cautionary advice” to abandon plans to legislate and when there is almost unanimous protest against national standardised testing, why is the Education Secretary saying he is “committed” to these policies?

Part of the answer may lie in the pressure that comes with pledges that were made by the First Minister to make closing the gap the top priority of the Scottish Government. Or, it may be that politicians, historically, tend to resort to legislation even when it is not required and tend to think that testing pupils is synonymous with helping them to learn more effectively.

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There are positive proposals being made by those who oppose the government’s current approach, and they need to be listened to. First, the testing of P1 pupils needs to stop. It is ill-advised, lacking in any research-based rationale and is inimical to the aims of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). It is worth remembering that CfE aims to ensure that all pupils emerge from their schooling as successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens …exactly what we would want in an independent Scotland. So, why place all the emphasis on testing and on legislation?

The Scottish Government, in its programme for education, should look to our Nordic neighbours rather than to England. It was Mrs Thatcher and Michael Forsyth who last tried to impose national testing and if you want to see the deleterious effect, you only have to look at SATs in England, where pupils are coached for weeks before the tests and where a cottage industry has arisen in the provision of sample SATs questions.

Scottish schools have been in the vanguard of an internationally recognised approach to improving learning and teaching called Assessment is for Learning. It puts assessment – not testing – at the heart of learning and focuses on deep learning rather than the surface learning which characterises an exam-based approach. This is why the current commitment to testing is wrong; it simply flies in the face of international research and ignores current good practice.

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Looking towards the Nordic countries is worth doing, but it is not for the faint-hearted. As part of an Erasmus project, I recently worked with primary schools in Scotland, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Friesland and Spain. The quality of the learning and teaching in the Scottish school (Kirkhill PS in Aberdeen) was, in my view, higher than that of the others, but there were other factors at play. These included staffing levels in the Nordic countries which were almost twice those in Scotland; a relative lack of poverty and therefore a narrower gap in achievement; children beginning formal schooling much later coupled with well-staffed early-years provision with a focus on play and creativity; and the relative lack of bureaucratic control from the centre.

Add to this, in Finland, the lack of private schools, the absence of a national inspection regime and you have what was at the heart of the original CfE document, namely trust in the teaching profession. The legislation which is currently proposed is not based on intelligent accountability and the imposition of testing, even if it could be made stress-free, undermines the professionalism of our teachers. They don’t need national testing to tell them which children are in danger of under-achieving; they need higher staffing levels, more time to work with parents and the trust of those charged with running the education system.

Brian Boyd
Emeritus professor of education