Schools to top election agenda

The First Minister is preparing plans for a new numeracy test for pupils in S4 or S5, reminiscent of the old 'O' Grade arithmetic exam, as part of the Labour Party manifesto in the lead up to next year's Scottish elections.

Jack McConnell dramatically pushed education to the top of his agenda in the past week, indicating in a weekend speech that it would be the central plank in the Labour Party's manifesto for next May's Scottish election.

Feedback from business, and information gathered through programmes such as Determined to Succeed and Skills for Work, have convinced Mr McConnell that there needs to be a stronger focus on arithmetical skills.

He is also expected to respond to employers' concerns, reinforced in a CBI Scotland pre-election manifesto this week, that school-leavers have poor spelling and grammar. Too much is being spent on "remedial education", the employers' organisation said.

Labour Party sources suggest that, while a new form of numeracy test is under discussion, it may be sufficient to switch the emphasis in current English exams on to basic spelling and grammar.

One insider told The TESS: "People can now pass exams in maths but they do not have basic mental arithmetical skills."

He added that the feedback from employers on literacy was that, while young people may have a good idea of comprehension, some aspects of literature and could read, their basic grammar was suffering.

It remains to be seen how all this will sit with ministers' previously stated intention to move to just one exam for pupils leaving school.

The idea of focusing on arithmetical, as opposed to mathematical, skills has already been flagged by one of Scotland's most influential education directors.

Michael O'Neill, director of education at North Lanarkshire Council, which includes Mr McConnell's constituency, took issue earlier this year with criticisms of falling literacy and numeracy standards which he said were based on a false assumption that achieving level E by the end of S2 was something all people should be able to do.

"But it was never intended to be that way," he said. Instead, Level D should be treated as the measure of basic competency in literacy or numeracy.

He applauded the intentions behind Mr McConnell's focus on arithmetical skills and literacy, but questioned the necessity of creating a separate test at the S45 stage. Instead, a more appropriate route might be to create either a new Standard grade-style course in arithmetic or bring it in at an earlier stage of 5-14 assessment.

"There is some mileage in suggesting that Learning and Teaching Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority should work together to see how some of the test arrangements could be moved to define a basic standard.

"Whether you get to it by S1 or by S4 is not so important. It could be a rolling programme focusing on reading, writing and arithmetic involving some core assessment but not involving extra testing."

Such a programme could, he suggested, replace some of the current 5-14 testing arrangements which were fast becoming redundant. "What is the point in having Level F when pupils are starting Standard grade in S2?" Mr O'Neill asked.

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