Ministers fail their resits over national testing

2nd August 1996 at 01:00
It was too much to expect that the Government would consult the 5-14 committee before deciding to legislate on secondary testing. The decision was political, not educational. Anyway, the committee's reaction could have been foretold and was therefore irrelevant, ministerial minds having been already made up.

A month ago we wrote that "any pretence that the national testing of all pupils in the first two years of secondary school is a logical progression from the primary tests disappeared during the course of the debates on the Education (Scotland) Bill. Pupils are to sit tests at the start of S1 and around Easter of their second year. There is no thought of following the primary example by which pupils are tested as they compete a level of the 5-14 guidelines. " The 5-14 committee continues this line of argument (TESS, last week) and adds that primary schools are likely to reduce their testing because of the fresh imposition on their secondary colleagues and the diversion of tests from their original purpose.

The Government appears ready to put the 5-14 strategy at risk in pursuit of a dubious belief that two sets of tests in English and mathematics will solve the problem of underachievement by pupils in the first two years of secondary school. The message to teachers and pupils is a simplistic one: we'll give you tests, and that will make you sit up. One of the reasons for unhappiness about performance is the lack of continuity with primary schools. The 5-14 guidelines were framed specifically to give progression and to overcome some of the problems caused by children arriving at secondary school from a wide range of primaries and with widely differing educational histories.

Faced with tests, secondary teachers will continue to ignore primary experience. Their impulse to a "fresh start" will be reinforced. By the time of the second batch of tests in S2, teachers will see their own performance being gauged and not that accumulated by pupils over seven years of primary as well as 15 months of secondary. There is a fundamental difference between primary and secondary testing. In the first case the Government belatedly accepted that pupils should be tested when they moved from one level of work to the next. But in secondary there will be two testing seasons for everyone, a revival of the notion which led primary parents to boycott the testing of all primary 4 and 7 pupils. Can ministers not learn their lesson?

Their case, reiterated by Lord Lindsay in the Lords just before the summer recess, rests on the fact that few secondary pupils have been tested so far. Local authorities appear reluctant to press upon secondary schools the requirement to test as pupils attain 5-14 levels. But the guidelines are relatively new in the secondary sector, where teachers have other changes to contend with. It is more important for liaison with primaries to be improved than for the databank of tests to be quarried. But in a pre-election period ministers are playing gesture politics. They aim to play the populist card with parents and to pretend pique with local authorities.

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