It's wrong and we should fix it

30th August 1996 at 01:00
The agitators and opportunists are at it. Emotive talk of alliances, barricades and bloodshed currently obscures reasoned discussion of the early secondary testing issue. Phony outrage obfuscates the facts: the Government has taken powers in legislation, but has yet to advance proposals - and, of course, put them out to consultation. The stakes are high: survival of the 5-14 programme, no less, currently at risk of shrivelling to 5-12. Parents are bewildered. They are used now to reports of progress through the levels and strands of English and maths, and comfortable with it.

Incomprehension dawns with the realisation that in vast swathes of Scotland this dialogue ends at transfer.

Dismay may replace incomprehension when parents realise that differentiated teaching, individual progression and reporting on "levels", carefully built up in primary, flies out the door where the "fresh start" is flavour of the day. The notion of a fresh start is said to be regressive in various ways. It obliterates hard won markers of individual achievement. It demonstrates at best disregard, at worst contempt for the judgments of primary colleagues. It links with the common course which in English and maths involves marking time and loss of momentum for the most able; while others struggle, unless teaching is pitched to the lowest common denominator.

The Government's recent move on external testing is born of this threat to 5-14 ideals and political exasperation in the face of union foot dragging. Ultimately parents will decide, wooed doubtless by both sides. The Scottish Office is likely to offer its usual consensual approach: consultation over the form of external testing, and choice over participation. The Education Minister's recent indication that he favours selection in the Scottish context within, not between, institutions may offer a clue to the likely outcome of the current HMI review into selection, streaming and testing.

My money is on an autumn recommendation for S1S2 setting in reading, writing and maths. If proved right, I hereby offer the Secretary of State an option for his consultation paper on external testing, which would strengthen and repair primary-secondary links, currently fractured by union non-compliance.

The remedy lies in integrating 5-14 into the proposed new S1 accountability process, first by multi-tier external testing based on the levels reached in primary: level C in arithmetic or whatever. This would validate and confirm the work of primary teachers. Their judgment would become a professional component of the new ethos of setting for some subjects. Multi-level testing would be vital where a pupil had not "moved level" within the last year or so; and would give parents reassuring external confirmation of progress, at a time when truancy and alienation can become spectres at the feast.

External testing would spotlight continuing problems with basic skills, and allow focused targeting of remedial effort. It might point up young people likely to do better spending time at college by third year.

Second, a recent study showed that children's primary folders are widely disregarded in the first year of secondary. For smooth progression, pupils deserve better than this. In order to blend 5-14 with the new culture of setting, secondary schools must use and build on primary colleagues' profiles and reports. Neither is external testing at end of the second year threatening. It will allow the school's contribution and the value added to be appreciated.

Concern about early secondary performance has been widely and consistently documented over many years, from the Howie report onwards. The challenge of S1S2 to Government and profession is to listen to that message and act upon it.

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