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Compulsory tests on way out

The Government is believed to be moving rapidly towards jettisoning another Tory inheritance and setting its face against compulsory testing in the first two years of secondary school.

Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, is thought to be close to a decision on rejecting proposals to impose the tests which have been roundly condemned for undermining the 5-14 programme. If the plans were to stand, primary teachers would have continued testing in reading, writing and mathematics when they believed their pupils were ready to move on to the next stage, while their secondary counterparts would have had no choice.

Mr Wilson seems keen to preserve the initial arrangements that allow teachers discretion. But he will also be determined to signal that the Government does expect secondary schools to test first and second-year pupils.

The abolition of compulsory tests, which were scheduled for piloting next spring, would provide a second breathing space for secondary schools on top of the year's delay for Higher Still.

The minister's reluctance to impose the apparatus of tests is in line with his stated intention to minimise bureaucratic demands on the classroom. Statutory testing would also have added considerably to public spending.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority, which would have been responsible for the tests, was facing the prospect of preparing 360,000 scripts, a figure based on the 60,000 pupils in each of the first two secondary years who would have had to sit three tests.

The authority estimated that a rough costing of #163;10 per pupil would compel it to seek an additional #163;3.6 million from the Scottish Office,on top of the #163;11 million it costs to run the existing SCE examinations.

The Government has already committed an extra #163;4 million in the current year for early intervention grants to boost basic literacy and numeracy skills on top of the initial #163;3 million. Most of the additional money has been found by not proceeding with compulsory tests.

The removal of compulsion from testing will not, however, remove Inspectorate concerns at the embarrassingly low level of testing in the early secondary years. While 90 per cent of primary pupils were being tested at the latest official count, returns from secondary schools showed that only 9 per cent of pupils had been tested in reading, 5 per cent in writing and 8 per cent in maths.

While the Education Minister does not appear to be as impatient as Michael Forsyth, the former Secretary of State, to see dramatic increases, he will want to take councils at their word that they intend doing something about it. Glasgow claims most secondary schools were prepared to introduce tests but held off when rumours of compulsion began circulating in the middle of last year.

Any move to proceed by consensus will be widely welcomed as a second major indication from the Government, following the Higher Still decision, that it intends to operate in partnership with educational interests.

The Association of Directors of Education will be particularly welcoming, having mounted an uncharacteristica lly vitriolic attack on compulsory testing in the middle of the election campaign. Its view was that "it is vital [to] endorse the current arrangements for the use of national tests in S1 and S2 which are based on 5-14 principles applicable in primary schools".

The Educational Institute of Scotland took equal exception to the previous plans which the union believed would have destroyed the philosophy of the 5-14 reforms and "driven a stake into the heart of the programme"

Education directors will, however, continue to press the Government to sort out the differing approaches to assessment in both primary and secondary schools which they have described as "a quite unacceptable mishmash" that will be reinforced by the Higher Still changes. They are demanding that the Scottish Office set up a broadly based review group charged with devising a coherent assessment structure for the 5-18 age range.

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