Apply more rigour to testing three Rs

23rd January 2009 at 00:00

For generations, Scotland had a proud record in ensuring that its primary pupils could move on to secondary able to read, write and count. But recently, there have been some worrying trends which suggest we are slipping back. That is why I have proposed that more rigour should be applied to the testing of the 3Rs in primary school.

Let me be quite clear: there is no need to reinvent the wheel. When it comes to equipping our primary pupils with the basic skills they need in later life, many good things have happened in recent years and this includes the widespread agreement among teachers that there needs to be more focus on the 3Rs. The 5-14 programme in this respect was good. Yet, despite the good intentions, overall standards have not improved. Why?

In my view, it is because there have been too many escape routes, meaning that the 5-14 programme was neither watertight nor sufficiently rigorous when it came to testing reading, writing and arithmetic. There was an understanding that teachers would use the tests only when they felt the pupil was ready to pass or when that teacher wanted to confirm his or her own judgment about the skills of the pupil.

It was therefore far too easy for there to be different approaches to testing in different parts of Scotland. Sometimes, this happened because heads or local authorities wanted to ensure the timing of the tests articulated with the publication of their school's performance results. Sometimes, there was a reluctance to apply the tests on a uniform basis because there was the perception that they would be too stressful an experience for many of the children.

This is not an acceptable state of affairs. Teachers are, on the whole, a highly professional group of people - increasingly so these days as a result of the very high standards in teacher training - and they are perfectly capable of administering these tests properly and allaying the anxieties of pupils and parents.

Teaching the basic skills is a long, continuous process and they won't be acquired just because pupils are asked to sit standalone literacy and numeracy tests in S4, or perhaps S3, which is one of the current proposals.

Personally, I would much rather we concentrated our efforts in primary schools to establish these skills sooner rather than later, which is why the Scottish Conservatives laid an amendment before the Scottish Parliament two weeks ago calling for more rigorous testing of reading, writing and arithmetic by the time a pupil leaves P7. I think it is essential that we have nationally-agreed staging posts along the way, and many in the profession recommend this would be most appropriate in P4 and P7.

This is essential if pupils are not to be disadvantaged in later life, and I believe all political parties recognise the support we need to give the teaching profession when it comes to ensuring there is more rigorous testing of the 3Rs in primary schools.

Elizabeth Smith is education spokesperson for the Scottish Conservatives.

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