I HAVE observed with interest the letters and debates at Holyrood regarding the assessment and testing of children in primary schools in Scotland. As a retired member of the education service I feel deeply disappointed at the politicising of this subject.

In setting up the new parliament in Holyrood an attempt was made to devise a system that would be more consensual than confrontational. Instead of aggressive debates along party lines, a committee system was established in the hope that the needs of Scotland would be placed above party.

Turning to education, how depressing it is to watch politicians argue, and encourage parents to remove their children from school because they disagree with current educational practice with regard to testing in Primary 1. These politicians should be careful about what they are advising. It is not a wise move to undermine schools in this way.

I read with interest Brian Boyd’s letter (September 7) and agree with much of what he has written. I, too, have spent time in Norway studying their education system and wholeheartedly agree that their success was built on a much more equal society (paying far higher taxes than here in the UK) and a teaching profession that was highly regarded, better remunerated, and had far better staffing levels.

READ MORE: Letters: Why is Swinney ignoring advice about education?

During my time in education I have worked through periods of time when absolutely no formal testing was occurring in Scottish primary schools. This led to a lack of consistency, and real problems for children when they had to move schools – from one area to another or from primary to secondary school.

The introduction of testing in primary schools in 1989 was designed to assist teachers make a judgment on the learning that a pupil had mastered and to plan for his/her progress in a consistent and constructive way. The results can then be discussed with parents, who can be reassured that there is a clear plan for pupil progress and additional help available if required.

It gives teachers an opportunity to reflect on class progress; teaching methodology; resourcing; additional support needs for pupils with learning difficulties; and an opportunity to identify any further staff development needs that they might require. For school management it gives them the chance to reflect on their school’s progress in the wider context of their local authority and national setting.

In 1989 the introduction of national testing was designed to raise attainment. This Scottish Government wishes to close the attainment gap. I agree with Brian Boyd that poverty plays a significant part in the under-achievement of many of our children. However, I strongly disagree with his desire to abandon testing in schools.

Like Brian, I greatly admire what I observed in Norway. However, we are operating in a different system which can and does work for us. For example, he points out in his letter that Kirkhill Primary School in Aberdeen provided a higher quality of learning and teaching than he had observed in his Nordic researches.

The education of our children is far too important to be at the whim of political jousting. By all means debate sensibly, sensitively and responsibly the issues. Support our teachers. Give them the status, tools and salary which reflects their vital importance to society. Ensure schools have appropriate support staff. And be open-minded and realistic. Testing introduced in Primary 1 in England has seen a dramatic rise in attainment across London schools – even in the poorest areas. I witnessed the worry and anxiety that it caused parents when the tests were introduced. Now it is regarded as a natural part of the learning and teaching process.

Learn from the experience of schools like Kirkhill Primary in Aberdeen where good practice was observed. And please keep the political debate constructive for the sake of all of our children.

I Gibson

READ MORE: Letters: Why is it a bad thing simply to assess P1s?

I HAVE listened with incredulity to the case advanced by the opponents of the Scottish Government to abandon the proposed assessment of Primary schoolchildren.

It is surely part of the teaching process that teachers at all levels assess constructively the progress being made by their pupils. As has been explained in monosyllables this is not, repeat not, a ”testing“ process to determine progress to a further stage of instruction, but an honest and valuable means of the education system's ability to identify any discoverable need to improve the level of attainment generally.

Without assessment, how does the learning process signify its success and its requirement to improve? Opponents as usual have no positive suggestion or programme to provide such advantage.

It is yet a further example of the sterile thinking and political chicanery now familiarly indulged in by opponents of the Scottish National Party, the reasons for which, or rather the excuses for which, need no illumination here.

Their stubborn refusal to assist in the education process for our children exposes yet again the many instances of their regressive behaviour and intentions, easily recognised as orchestrated for Party “advantage”, and even more easily as performing no worthwhile service to this country.
J Hamilton

READ MORE: John Swinney announces changes to P1 testing

I am totally in tune with the letter by the angry grandmother (September 5) by Kate Reid (September 7) yet in many ways I also like the contradictions in Professor Boyd’s letter (September 8).

Prof Boyd describes the virtually perfect, idyllic world of education in many nordic countries plus Spain, and surely that is what we should be aiming for. Who could not possibly agree? What I take exception to in his letter is the constant use of the word "test" when applied to an assessment process. Who does Prof Boyd think is being tested and why?

Prof Boyd describes English schools under Thatcher and Forsyth who tried to impose national testing. The teachers of that period then tried to cram their pupils to achieve best possible grades. Yet in the same letter Prof Boyd asks us to trust our teachers implicitly at all times. Surely if national assessments are set in Scotland then it is teachers, by their act of cramming their pupils, who are causing the process to become a test and not an honest appraisal of the child’s needs and abilities as intended? 

I can see that it is human nature for teachers to want their pupils to do well, but these same teachers then fail the child by trying to cram them for a test when the child is not being tested. Thus the process is in the mind of the teacher a "test" when it is an appraisal thus it is the teacher who is failing to be professional.

READ MORE: Letters, September 5 (including from A very angry mother of four and grandmother of six)

Many headteachers in Scotland are now in receipt of funds to use as they see fit – that is a direct act of trust in the professionalism of these headteachers by the Scottish Government. How did several local authorities react to this trust in these professional teachers? Initially some Tory/Labour coalition councils tried to cut funding to those schools in line with the headteachers' discretionary spend.  As far as I am aware that is no longer possible. In this case the damage to trust can be laid squarely at the feet of certain educational authorities. Can this be addressed?

I have several friends and acquaintances who are teachers. The much older ones still bemoan the lack of the belt, whilst many are lovely people who demonstrate a real care for children. Teachers are human and most have good intentions and care a great deal; but the idea of unquestioning blanket trust is not reasonable and not acceptable. My own experiences of school go way back to the period 1958-1969 and can be categorised as minor abuse with an extended period of being belted daily because I could not spell, so then out of fear I would wet myself. I was seven to eight years of age when this main abuse occurred for about three months but even at secondary school I was belted twice, once for the hideous crime of wearing my scarf within the school. I was also mentally abused for a half-hour period. I also regularly witnessed the same forms of abuse meted out to my fellow pupils on a daily basis. I went to secondary school in leafy Bearsden. I recovered sufficiently to enjoy education from the age of 29 and so far have not stopped studying and learning new things.

In the year 2000 I regularly witnessed the P1 teacher leaving the school before her pupils and parents had left, and witnessed a headteacher stating at a school function: “I have been here now for well over 12 hours and I am sick of this place.” I sympathised with her views but deplored her stating them out loud, it was unprofessional. So no, I do not believe that all teachers are totally perfect and professional at all times.

Have things improved? I believe they have, but education in Scotland has a dark history and needs to progress significantly. Successful education in many other countries comes from a much better, kinder foundation developed over hundreds of years.

READ MORE: Campaign launched to take P1 pupils out of national testing

I would also like to see education in Scotland being delivered to healthy, well-stimulated children free from all the effects of poverty which damages their ability to learn.

For many parents school is also viewed as childcare, often with children out of their home for far too long a day, primarily because both parents have to work to pay all the bills. This is exacerbated by our low-wage culture coupled with a high fuel and a high housing cost culture. 

How do the Nordic countries compare with these pressures on Scottish parents and children? How does Scotland get from here to there?
Prof Boyd suggests many things which all cost a great deal of money.   Can Prof Boyd produce any costings for comparison purposes? How much is spent per pupil in other countries: England, Wales, Scotland, Finland, Norway, etc?

The current expenditure per pupil is determined by recent historical spend in the UK and current spend in England. The Scottish Government can move funds from one budget to another, they can also raise revenue by about 15%. Please consider the bigger picture. What would the government of Scotland achieve if it could directly raise corporation tax from all the non-dom companies who operate in Scotland then funnel that money directly into education? How quickly could significant improvements towards a more caring, effective education system be achieved? How would we know if actual improvements had been achieved because of this massive financial cash injection? How quickly can the training of many more teachers take place?  

Currently Scotland does not have the power to encourage teachers from outwith the UK to live and work in Scotland, thus increasing the pool of qualified teachers. Clearly if we need these teachers in Scotland we should have the powers in Scotland to find them and allow them to live in Scotland without fear of harassment from the Westminster Government.

I would suggest the improvements that Prof Boyd can envisage should follow, and they will be of immense benefit to the children of Scotland, but that there should still be national standardised assessments for the sake of the children. Children can not wait for a tiny number of rotten apples to be detected and the system needs to be as near perfect as it can be to allow young lives to flourish.

READ MORE: Willie Rennie leads cross-party bid to scrap national testing for primary ones

If there are no baseline assessment results, how can we ever really know what works and what does not? If a teacher in Aberdeen has a superb method for teaching should it not be shared, tested and if it survives being shared then adopted for use thought the country? If not why not? If there are no baseline assessment results, do we stagnate and become complacent? Should we not always strive for best possible practice and detect where and when that is not being achieved?

Kate Reid reminded us that what is not measured is not done. We can only know if every child has been offered the best education possible for that child if there is some way to measure the needs and experiences of the child. To do this an initial baseline assessment is required.

I wish to finish on a completely different topic. UK pensions have now fallen to an all-time low when compared to the average male wage. The standard state pension in the UK is now about £8,000 per year. In Mexico pensioners receive a little more, and in all other EU countries pensioners are considerably more financially secure. In Nordic countries pensioners receive pensions which allow them full quality of life, heat, food, housing etc. For UK citizens stress, low wages and long hours are an everyday part of our world. This all impacts on our children's ability to learn and to be supported.

READ MORE: Labour motion demands scrapping of tests for P1 pupils

The UK has been very badly managed for years. The use of money from a vast empire has concealed this problem. Money is not sloshing around looking for essential uses, we can see them all around us. Until very recently the UK was classed as the fifth richest country in the world yet when everywhere is short of money and thus resources, the basic question must always by why? Including why so many of our fellow country folk can not see that life in Scotland could be so much better?

So I conclude that we can only move from where we are to where we want to be by being aware of the many gatekeepers in Scotland in all professions and in all walks of life including education. Gatekeepers are determined, at all costs, to hold Scotland back. Surely that is the subject of another conversation?
Mary C Baxter
Address supplied