Primary test scores are an open secret

Elizabeth Buie & Neil Munro

Primary schools may still be forced to reveal internal test scores in future, although 5-14 data is no longer being collected nationally to check on their performance.

This was confirmed by the office of the Scottish Information Commissioner, following publication by the Sunday Times Scotland of details of primary 7 performance for every school in Scotland, obtained under freedom of information legislation.

A spokesman for the commissioner said that, while his office considers all requests for information which have been turned down on a case-by-case basis, the general principle is that "any recorded information held by a public authority, which includes schools, should be released". The key could be how "recorded" is defined.

There are exemptions under the data protection legislation if there is a risk individuals will be identified. But, he added, this can be overcome if names are removed. If, however, there is only one pupil in a class, a request for details could be turned down since the individual would be identifiable.

The Scottish Executive will next month publish the first results from the new Scottish Survey of Achievement (SSA), for English. Others will follow in social subjects (enquiry skills) in 2006, science in 2007 and mathematics in 2008. The core skills of literacy, numeracy, ICT, problem-solving and working with others will be assessed each year.

The SSA system, a core part of the Executive's Assessment is for Learning policy, relies on random sampling at P3, P5, P7 and S2 (essentially, an expanded version of the now defunct Assessment of Achievement Programme).

The results are not intended to be reported at school or pupil level, although this will clearly now depend on decisions not by the Executive but by the information commissioner. The new system will, however, allow for comparisons between authorities.

The intention is that schools will use their own assessments to test the pupils, while the SSA will test the system. The previous 5-14 survey was heavily criticised for attempting to do both.

The figures published over the weekend, which for the first time identified individual primary schools, gave a predictable picture of many schools in disadvantaged areas performing poorly and those in better-off areas doing well.

Confusingly, figures for authorities were presented as the percentage of schools where fewer than 50 per cent of P7 pupils were at level D or above in reading, writing and maths, while for schools it was the percentage of pupils.

Glasgow was initially shown as having the worst results and had to rush out an embarrassing correction, with every primary school identified, after it issued only level D results, omitting levels E and F. Compared with the initial figures of 46 per cent, 52 per cent and 29 per cent for schools where fewer than 50 per cent of pupils reached those levels in reading, writing and maths, the amended figures were 12 per cent, 31 per cent and 19 per cent. The improved picture, however, was barely reported.

Kay Hall, past president of the primary heads' association and its area officer for the west of Scotland, condemned the publication of the results and wrote to the newspapers concerned: "Before you decide to damn the work of primary teachers, you should consider the challenges faced by families and teachers in a complicated and often uncaring world.

"There is no doubt that deprivation plays an enormous part in underachievement but so too does lack of motivation and disaffection. This can sometimes be made worse by ill-informed reporting."

Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, condemned "misjudgments and non-sequiturs" by the newspapers involved.

Ewan Aitken, education spokesman for the local authorities, said there clearly had to be a better means of communicating how well schools were doing. Publishing test results in a "snapshot way" was not the way.

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Elizabeth Buie & Neil Munro

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