They tell you to expect the unexpected when you go into teaching, and I've always done my best to take that advice on board. Even so, when I started out in the profession back in 2010, I never expected to find myself in front of a Scottish Parliament committee talking about a combination of assessment theory and government policymaking. And yet, earlier this month, that is exactly what happened.
In a session which simultaneously seemed to drag on and fly by – it lasted for more than two hours – I joined representatives of the EIS and NASUWT Scotland unions, and Connect (formerly the Scottish Parent Teacher Council), as part of an Education and Skills Committee inquiry into the SNP government's decision to impose standardised testing on Scottish children. It’s a topic with which I have some experience, having spent the past three-and-a-half years investigating the origins and implementation of this policy.
On the day, we talked about the origins of the Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSA) policy and the shambolic way in which it has been developed. We explained that the government's constant conflation of formative and summative assessment methods is enormously problematic. The (utterly disgraceful and genuinely dangerous) suggestion that these tests will help to ensure that children with dyslexia or autism are identified was completely rejected.
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And, of course, we pointed out, again and again and again, that teachers assess their students every single day, and that their professional opinions are far more valuable than a dodgy, 40-minute snapshot of a tiny fraction of the school curriculum.
From the outside, this probably all sounds like a constructive and valuable use of time – but it didn’t really feel that way to me. As I left the Parliament building and strolled up the Royal Mile, the same thought kept on tumbling through my mind: the whole experience should never have been necessary in the first place.
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As I pointed out to the committee at the time, every single thing being discussed during that session had been raised right from the start of the whole process – none of the multitude of problems facing this policy were unexpected. Instead, we are exactly where so many of us warned that we would be with the SNSAs.
Why? Put simply, because the Scottish government refused to accept that it had made the wrong choice, and SNP politicians then refused to back down for political reasons. Over and over again through the evidence session, the word “confusion” was used to describe this flagship policy, the one on which first minister Nicola Sturgeon effectively staked her reputation, and for which education secretary John Swinney is now prepared to defy the Scottish Parliament in order to protect.
As I said in the committee room, the very fact that these conversations need to held now isn’t a sign a progress – it’s an indictment of this government’s handling of education, and a sign of how far we are from working in an education system where we are trusted to do our jobs.
James McEnaney is a journalist, FE lecturer and former schoolteacher in Scotland