Education secretary John Swinney questioned whether Scotland should withdraw from a major international education survey during his time as finance secretary, newly released documents show.
Scotland withdrew from both Timss (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and Pirls (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) some years ago, although it remains in Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment).
Scottish Labour has shared correspondence and documents it received, released under freedom of information legislation. This shows that in July 2010, when Mr Swinney was finance secretary, he commented that Pisa seemed "a chunky piece of external research" and questioned whether it was necessary. Ultimately, however, he backed Scotland continuing to participate in Pisa.
A document prepared on 12 July 2010 by Education Analytical Services, for then education secretary Michael Russell, states: "The view from Learning Directorate is that Timss and Pirls are less of a priority than Pisa, which should be retained as the focus of our international comparative assessments. Pisa is highly valued as it provides evidence on how pupils reaching the end of compulsory education can apply their learning."
The Scottish government decided that participation in Pisa would continue, but that the country should leave Pirls and Timss. In 2015, University of Edinburgh research suggested that this may have been a serious error which paved the way for ineffectual teaching techniques to become commonplace. Dips in Scotland's subsequent performance in Pisa have also put the government under scrutiny.
The move to withdraw from Pirls and Timss saved at least £800,000 over several years, according to a November 2015 government document shared by Labour, which also shows that it meant 12,000 students did not have to sit assessments.
The move had aimed – according to the July 2010 advice from Education Analytical Services to education secretary Michael Russell – to “reduce the burden on schools”. The move was also justified by the introduction of the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN), which was later scrapped after a final set of results in 2016 that identified some downward trends.
A July 2010 letter by a government official includes advice for Mr Russell and warns that the media might portray withdrawal from Timss and Pirls as the government “trying to hide information about school performance”, and that it should point out that the SSLN would place a “lighter burden” on schools, while helping ensure that “our statistics are focused and relevant”.
In 2017-18, the government introduced the Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSAs), which have also been a source of controversy. This week’s Labour motion calling for the SNSAs to be scrapped for P1 pupils – who are aged four and five – has attracted cross-party support.
Labour education spokesman Iain Gray argued that the SNP government removed Scotland from Timss and Pirls "not for any sound educational reason", but because it "didn’t want to pay for them".
He added that the government had now “spent £4.6 million on national standardised testing which teachers say are a waste of time, educationalists say are of no educational value, and statisticians say cannot be aggregated”.
Mr Gray said: “So we have dumped international tests just to save some money, ditched our own survey of standards because the government didn’t like what it was telling them, and introduced tests which no one trusts.”
A spokesman for John Swinney accused Labour of "rank hypocrisy".
He said: “They are actively campaigning to cut assessments from Scotland’s schools – in the teeth of international best practice and experience – while simultaneously complaining that Scotland left two international studies years ago.
“This reveals a simple truth: they are not concerned about assessments, they simply want to play politics with our schools. Far from standing on principle, they flip-flop with every press release, posing one minute as supporters of assessment; the next as opponents. Their only real interest is in using our schoolchildren’s education to attack the SNP."
He added: “We are committed to ensuring Scotland has the right evidence available to teachers to support learning. That’s why we have maintained our involvement in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's Pisa survey – which provides an effective indicator of how the whole Scottish education system is performing relative to other countries – and introduced standardised assessments to provide consistent evidence for teachers to identify the next steps in a child's learning.”