Scottish National Standardised Assessments: recommendations from P1 Practitioner Forum

The P1 Practitioner Forum was formed to give P1 teachers a voice in the debate concerning the Scottish National Standardised Assessment (SNSA) for P1, and to generate practical advice to address the well-documented challenges and discussions that arose from SNSA’s first year of implementation.

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The SNSA Fit With Play-Based Pedagogies

“Some of my children couldn’t listen to the voice reading the story, so I read it to them.”

“Play based observations and assessments are valuable but quite subjective to the individual teacher. Using the SNSA offers a consistent element for discussion of some areas.”

“The SNSAs are not play but they are consistent with the learning I’m looking to get from play.”

“They don’t look like play activities. The presentation’s visually dull and wouldn’t keep my children’s attention.”

“We did it as an adult-mediated free-choice activity during a normal play session. Over the week, they all chose it except one child, and they had a ball.”

“Play-based activities are planned with the benchmarks in mind, so I don’t have a problem with children demonstrating their learning through SNSA.”

“I used the practice assessments as a free choice activity in the playroom. [Children] did them on their own and with friends. There were no problems. It made the actual SNSA go that wee bit quicker.”

The Forum members use play-based pedagogies but there is no single practice, rationale or approach. Current pedagogic practices include: Froebelian approaches (highly individual and responsive; the teacher takes the lead from each child); playful teaching and learning approaches (‘skilled recruitment’ where the teacher recruits children to playful tasks designed with particular learning intentions in mind); and withdrawal group teaching (where children engage in play-based learning and the teacher withdraws small groups for adult-led literacy/numeracy instruction and tasks). Forum members knew of no national information on how widely different approaches to play are used across Scotland.

Forum members recognise that play itself is not a learning outcome and the SNSAs are not designed as play-based learning activities in and of themselves. Play-based pedagogies are a way of working so that children achieve the learning that Curriculum for Excellence articulates. It is the main vehicle for learning in nursery and pre-school settings. However, in Scotland, despite a strong rationale for using play-based pedagogies in P1-3, national advice on play-based learning approaches for school-age children is vague. It is hard to find specific national exemplification of how the range of Curriculum for Excellence learning outcomes for literacy and numeracy can be addressed through play in P1, for example. This, along with the different staffing ratios between pre-school and school (nursery has one adult to ten children; Primary 1, one adult to 25 children; Primaries 2 and 3, one adult to 30 children), risks leaving P1 teachers unsupported in applying play-based approaches in classrooms. We need to be sure that play-based pedagogies and activities for school-age children are inclusive, address the fullest-possible range of literacy and numeracy outcomes, raise attainment, and deliver equity. Without examples of how this is achieved, literacy and numeracy learning may be positioned as ‘work’ rather than as exciting opportunities for playful thinking and learning that recognise and celebrate emergent competences.

In terms of how well the SNSA caters for children who are being taught mainly through play-based pedagogies, Forum members raised issues about the demands of the SNSA on P1 children’s attention spans, their knowledge and familiarity with particular content, contexts and question formats, and the visual appeal of SNSA items for P1 children. Specific issues were:

  • Some Forum members questioned whether children raised on play-based learning could attend to external, adult-led agendas for sufficient time to complete the SNSA. Some suggested that practitioners note when children struggled to attend during the SNSA to inform action points for future teaching.
    The average time for the P1 assessment in 2017/2018 was 27 minutes (literacy) and 22 minutes (numeracy).
  • The practice assessments were used differently across schools. Some teachers introduced the practice assessments as a free choice activity. They explained the activities to the whole class (which is normal practice when introducing new materials or activities) and the children engaged with the practice assessments individually and with friends during free play. The children were ready and confident to do the SNSA the following week.
  • Some teachers offered the SNSA as an adult-supported activity during play and children chose when they wanted to do them. Some teachers took the opportunity to watch how individual children completed the SNSA, treating it as a structured observation and writing notes to inform future professional discussions and decisions.
  • The format and appearance of the SNSA is less appealing and intuitive for P1 than some alternative assessments. Forum members suggested that: the ‘click’ boxes be repositioned and resized; that pages and illustrations be made more colourful, and that schools be given clear direction about whether a person (rather than the electronic voice) could read the short story to children.
  • Most Forum members agreed that play-based learning should contribute to a curriculum that seeks to meet all the Curriculum for Excellence experiences, outcomes and benchmarks, but not all play-based philosophies support this. There was debate, for example, about whether children should be expected to hold a pencil correctly in P1, whether they should be allowed to colour-in pictures to build muscle strength and pencil control, and whether they should have sufficient alphabetic knowledge to recall letter forms and write unaided. There appears to be mixed messages and some political and professional confusion, but further discussion was outwith the remit of the Forum.


The Scottish Government should ensure:

2a That there is support for play-based approaches as an important pedagogy to deliver the learning that Curriculum for Excellence articulates, and practical exemplars and explanations of how play-based literacy and numeracy learning/teaching in P1 address a wide range of the Curriculum for Excellence experiences, outcomes and benchmarks. [Responsibility: Scottish Government, Education Scotland]

2b That there is detailed consideration of the format and presentation of every SNSA item added to the item-bank to ensure it is appealing and intuitive for P1 children to use. [Responsibility: Scottish Government]

2c Clear guidance is available on how the SNSA might be presented in ways that offer P1 children choice and agency, and be interrupted if children need a break, and perhaps a mechanism to record such interruptions. [Responsibility: Scottish Government, Education Scotland]

2d Worked examples are made available detailing how SNSA data might be triangulated with observational data from play-based activities and interactions to provide robust evidence of learning and/or attainment, with a choice of sustainable and time-efficient recording formats. [Responsibility: Scottish Government, Education Scotland]



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