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'Market forces risk widening the attainment gap'

Nothing good will come of testing the youngest pupils in Scotland, says this campaigner and former primary head

​​​​​​​'National assessments unleashing market forces that widen attainment gap'

Nothing good will come of testing the youngest pupils in Scotland, says this campaigner and former primary head

Peccavi, as they used to say in the confessional box: “I have sinned.”

As an independent literacy specialist in 1996, I was invited by a publisher to write two workbooks for the English parental market to help preschool children learn to read. I obligingly churned out “fun” activities covering phonological awareness, letter and word recognition, and stories (laced with rhyme and repetition) for parents to share with their children.

The publisher assured me of a growing demand. They were right: within a few months, my workbooks were overtaken by other, cheaper, more “schoolified” publications – and they kept on coming.

More than 20 years later, at a demonstration of the Primary 1 Scottish National Standardised Assessment (SNSA), I was shown a similar range of “fun” activities: onscreen and "adaptive", so that children (aged 5, remember) wouldn’t be upset by questions beyond their capacity. This was supposed to be reassuring, but I wasn’t reassured.


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There were longer texts on the SNSA too but – unlike my innocent workbook stories – these were intended for the child to read alone, before answering comprehension questions. Professor Andy Hargreaves, a government adviser, admitted finding some of them quite hard. Still, presumably some five-year-olds can cope…

My guilt over that old sin, and concern about the P1 tests, are due to spending the past 20 years researching and writing about child development in the modern world. I soon learned that literacy specialists know practically nothing about early child development. I discovered that effective early years education is not about rushing children unnecessarily into skills-based practice of the three Rs, but about supporting them at their personal developmental level – physical, emotional, social and cognitive. I learned that assessment of this age group should also be related to holistic development, not judgement against age-related standards of achievement.

Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence has an early level, covering nursery and P1, which attempts to bring Scotland into line with principled early childhood care and education in other countries. But now –  to provide appropriate standards for a P1 SNSA – 54 skills-based literacy benchmarks have been extrapolated from the early level “experiences and outcomes”.

'Mad, crazy and cruel'

Across the European mainland, five-year-olds wouldn’t even be in school, let alone sitting tests of specific literacy skills. They’d be in kindergarten, learning through well-established principles of play-based pedagogy. When I’ve shown the early level literacy benchmarks to kindergarten teachers from Europe, their verdicts include words like “mad”, “crazy” and “cruel”.

As children’s lifestyles become increasingly indoor, sedentary and screen-based, the need for a genuinely play-based kindergarten stage in Scotland becomes ever more pressing. But – influenced by “tests and targets” madness in England and the US – aspirational parents are increasingly anxious that their offspring acquire basic reading skills as early as possible. The introduction of the P1 SNSA has compounded this desire to accelerate literacy progress through skills-based coaching.

Within a year of first minister Nicola Sturgeon announcing the SNSAs in 2015, “help your child with P1 literacy/numeracy” workbooks were in the bookshops. As standardised testing at primary school becomes normalised, market demand will grow. And once publishers wise up to the content of the P1 tests, there will be dedicated apps, too (thus convincing parents that plugging little children into an iPad is educationally good for them).  

Many children from middle-class homes – who’ve had bedtime stories, library “rhyme times” and so on since birth – can cope with acceleration into schoolified learning, although it won’t necessarily do them any long-term good in terms of overall wellbeing. But their success leads to a constant upping of the ante for early reading skills – and that helps drive an attainment gap that is already huge even before children start school.  

We know that, at age 5, children from disadvantaged homes are about 13 months behind their more fortunate peers in language development. Rushing these children into skills-based literacy learning won’t help close that gap. But a “kindergarten literacy” diet of play, talk, stories, songs and rhymes could help close it, besides laying sound foundations for later skills-based learning. It would also be helpful for many boys (who tend to lag behind girls developmentally) and children with English as an additional language. The early readers wouldn’t be “held back” – they, too, would be supported as appropriate to their all-round developmental level.

Indeed, a developmentally appropriate early level could help level the educational playing field in Scotland, as well as enhancing the lifelong health, wellbeing and potential of all children. Instead, the P1 SNSA has confirmed Scotland’s outdated cultural conviction that P1 is all about cracking on with the three Rs.   

The “benchmarks” are now out there on the internet. Aspirational parents are anxious that their children should do well on the SNSA. The forces of competitive consumerism can see money to be made. So the stage is set for a widening of the early attainment gap…      

But it’s never too late to repent.

Sue Palmer is a literacy specialist, author and chair of Upstart Scotland

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