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Robertson rushes to begin setting

The Education (Scotland) Bill finished its committee stage in the Commons last week with no major concessions from the Government.

The completion of each significant clause in the legislation was, unusually, followed by a Scottish Office press release expressing ministerial pleasure that changes had gone through unscathed.

The Education Minister let slip a single concession, during discussion of the clause compelling education authorities to test first and second-year secondary pupils: "I do not at this stage envisage a return to streaming."

Raymond Robertson, while saying he did not wish to pre-empt the HMI inquiry into mixed-ability teaching and class organisation during the 5-14 stages, revealed his hand publicly for the first time by announcing: "I will probably institute a return to setting in the first two (secondary) years."

Mr Robertson, who experienced constant barracking from MPs (12 interventions in 11 minutes were counted by Sir Hector Monro, the former Scottish Office minister), also confirmed The TES Scotland's report (June 21) that pupils will be tested at the start of secondary school. The move has been condemned by directors of education as a "12-plus" directed at the heart of the 5-14 programme.

The minister added that tests for S2 pupils would take place around Easter. But he insisted in an accompanying press release that there would be wide consultation and the tests would be compatible with the 5-14 programme.

"Having tests at the start of S1 and towards the end of S2 will provide evidence for both parents and teachers about the value added to pupils' education during the first two years of secondary school," Mr Robertson said. He had earlier promised MPs that the tests would build on primary school assessment and were not "a clean break or a new start".

The minister said the first two years of secondary represented an "anomalous gap" between the end of primary and Standard grade exams in that there was no "assessment of pupils against nationwide benchmarks." He accused councils of "a disturbing level of complacency" in the face of the evidence on low pupil achievement.

Mr Robertson's claim that testing will "underpin the continuity of the 5-14 programme" did not convince opposition MPs. Helen Liddell, Labour's education spokesperson, said the statutory imposition of testing smacked of "panic and ill-preparedness" and was not consistent with the 5-14 approach.

Mrs Liddell conceded under repeated pressure from the minister, that she was not happy with the level of testing in the first two years of secondary school. But she suggested the answer lay in "considering how we can make the proposals for assessment and testing in S1 and S2 workable within the framework of teacher assessment."

She predicted that parents would withdraw children from external tests, a right Mr Robertson confirmed they would have under section 28(1) of the 1980 Education (Scotland) Act.

Andrew Welsh, the SNP's representative on the committee, said this assurance was "disingenuous" and claimed parents would come under "moral blackmail" to have children tested. He agreed there was merit in baseline testing against which pupil progress could be measured, but said assessment on entry to secondary school was "an implied slur against primary schools".

Mr Robertson confirmed later that the consultative paper on testing to be issued early in the new school session would include proposals for a sixth level of the 5-14 regime, intended to stretch pupils who have completed level E in S1 or earlier This will be known as level F.

MPs will move on to the report and then the third reading of the Bill on July 10 before it returns briefly to the Lords for consideration of new amendments such as the clause on testing.

When the Bill reaches the statute book, it will also usher in nursery vouchers, open up more placing request places in schools, and establish the new Scottish Qualifications Authority to replace the two existing examining bodies.

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