In the period since the debate on P1 assessments, I have considered the arguments put forward and taken time to discuss ways forward with colleagues in local government and education.
I am keen to address the intent of the Parliamentary motion, take account of the evidence and recognise the duty we all carry to ensure our education system enables pupils to achieve their potential.
There is a great deal of agreement on a number of points within the terms of the motion Parliament supported.
It highlighted that “good-quality pupil assessment is an essential component of the drive to raise educational standards in Scotland's schools”.
I agree with that - it was a key element of the joint statement that the Scottish Government issued with the Association of the Directors of Education (ADES) in September. It is vital that we have the appropriate approach to assessment as we would be failing children and their families if we did not.
The motion also highlighted the need to ensure that the P1 assessments “are in line with the play-based learning philosophy of the early years provision in the Curriculum for Excellence”. I also agree with that – the early level of CfE explicitly provides for play-based learning and any assessment mechanism must reflect that approach.
I believe that an assessment which lasts less than an hour in a year and is deployed in the correct environment is entirely compatible with that play-based approach.
I do, however, fully recognise that view is not shared by all and accept the importance of ensuring the specific design of the assessments are aligned with a play-based approach.
I have reflected on the concerns raised by colleagues in this Chamber. I have read the feedback from teachers provided by the EIS, from parents and others and I acknowledge the concerns raised.
But it is also important to acknowledge that others have had a positive experience. “Overall, primary 1 children responded positively to the SNSAs in both literacy and numeracy” was the view of one school. This feedback is included in case studies on the P1 assessment experience that will be published shortly as part of our User Review of the assessments.
While I am aware of the concerns that some parents have, ADES have confirmed that no Directors of Education have raised any significant concerns by parents in relation to the P1 assessments.
This mixed picture must give us all cause to reflect and consider the best way forward.
It strikes me that I am yet to hear a compelling argument about how and why Scotland has undertaken standardised assessments for P1 pupils for so many years (sometimes twice a year) without any concerns being raised by teachers, parents or indeed politicians until now. No concerns were raised that these previous assessments, many of which were similar to SNSA, were not compatible with play-based learning.
I can only conclude that it must be that the education system found the assessments that have been in place for some time helpful and informative – and a useful part of their overall assessment of children’s learning.
Another conclusion might be that some oppose the assessments because they are national assessments and they believe them to be high stakes tests that we want to use for accountability purposes. They are absolutely not that.
The key measure the Scottish Government will use for assessing the standards of education is teacher professional judgment – not the outcomes of the standardised assessments. The standardised assessments are just one part of the range of evidence that a teacher will call on when assessing whether a child or young person has achieved the appropriate CfE Level.
The primary purpose of the SNSAs is to support teachers in planning learning and teaching – whether in P1, P4, P7 or S3. Indeed, because they are diagnostic assessments and, because they are specifically aligned to the early level of CfE, the SNSA should be a better and more effective tool for teachers to use than the variety of previous assessments.
I have also considered the advice from those charged with delivering education in Scotland. In our debate last month I quoted the ADES President Maureen McKenna who said “We suffer too much in education from decisions being made too quickly – my ask is for politicians to pause and allow us time to evaluate”.
ADES also wrote to all local authority Directors of Education earlier this month and emphasised these points:
- that assessment is a key part of learning and that it is too soon to pass judgement on whether SNSA are a useful tool for teachers
- that ADES is committed to working to improve and enhance the assessments; and thirdly, that
- the importance of keeping the educational arguments central, specifically that the: “use of assessments to inform learning are decisions for the profession to make”
Given that the vast majority of local authorities have been running P1 standardised assessments for years, I believe that we have to give due consideration to the established approach of authorities and practitioners.
The Motion passed by Parliament gives no clarity to local authorities that, if we drop SNSA, what should be done with their own standardised assessments programmes. This could see a return to P1s being assessed twice, whilst also removing the elements of national consistency and alignment with Curriculum for Excellence that are key benefits of the SNSAs. That is the type of unintended consequence that can be created by a decision of this Parliament. I ask Parliament to recognise that cannot be a beneficial outcome of this debate.
Ultimately, 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.
I have asked Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education to provide me with advice on who should carry out this independent review.
The review will consider and provide recommendations on the following issues:
- the compatibility of the assessments with the play based approach to early level of CfE
- the alignment of the assessments to the benchmarks for early level
- the effect of taking an on-line assessment on P1 children
- the usefulness of the diagnostic information provided to teachers and how it supports their professional judgement
- the implications of the review for the ongoing development of the national Gaelic Medium Education standardised assessments; and
- the future of the assessments considering in particular whether they continue in line with the current continuous improvement model, whether they be substantially modified, or whether they should be stopped
I would welcome the input of the other parties to the formulation of the remit of the review and the appointment if its leadership.
An independent, evidence-based review could come to the same conclusion that I have reached – that P1 assessment should be reformed not abolished.
But I want to be very clear with the Chamber today that the outcome of the review could be a recommendation to stop the assessments.
The review will be led by the evidence and by what is best for pupils. That is, I believe, the right way to resolve the competing considerations that we face following the vote of Parliament last month.
The review will be asked to provide conclusions and recommendations on each of these issues by the end of May 2019. This will allow time for us to digest the findings and for Parliament to debate them prior to the summer recess.
To properly inform it, the review will clearly need to see the assessments in operation so I re-iterate my previous advice that schools should continue with their existing plans in relation to the implementation of SNSA in 2018-2019.
By proceeding with the assessments this year we will generate a larger evidence base to see how the improvements we have already introduced are working and what other changes could be made.
To do otherwise would simply generate uncertainty and confusion during the school year.
The Scottish Government advice is clear about the timing of assessments; that this should not involve all children being assessed in blocks or “windows”.
Local authorities should work collaboratively with headteachers to agree plans for the assessments, taking account of the needs of the children and young people involved.
This sits comfortably with the ADES advice that the timing of the assessments should be driven by educational arguments. This was made clear in the recent ADES advice to Directors which said “There is no need for a window to be identified when assessments must be carried out”.
Teachers’ judgement is key here – and that judgement should be left to teachers to make based on the interests of their pupils.
I ask colleagues across the Chamber to move this discussion away from politics, to focus on the educational needs of our children and to support the independent review of P1 assessments that I’ve set out today.