Must we be so defensive about results?

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
The only surprise about the publication of the country's primary 7 results is that it took the Sunday Times Scotland so long to penetrate the Scottish Executive's wall of secrecy. As a supposedly investigative newspaper, it should be ashamed of its years of delay in acquiring the information.

Everything else was predictable. By Monday, other newspapers followed their Sunday rival in applauding a few "top schools", while the rest of us were condemned as incompetents who are failing Scotland's future.

You would think the papers would know enough geography to spot that economic disadvantage usually goes along with fewer passes and vice versa.

A moment's questioning of their "top schools" label - those that attained 100 per cent in each of reading, writing and mathematics - might also reveal a group of small, rural schools where it is easier to score full marks when your "class" is a handful of competent children. But then, I am assuming that a newspaper is a seeker after truth.

There were other predictable reactions. Parents claimed they have a right to know and teachers said that it was all much too complicated to be reduced to a few figures. Of course, both are right.

Most parents realise that statistics require interpretation and they want to support "their" school. The teachers' argument, that results give no credit to the level of deprivation many pupils and teachers have to overcome, is well-rehearsed. So also is the point that a school in an advantaged area can be coasting while appearing to achieve "good" results.

And all of us know how an unusually duff class can wreck the attainment figures for the whole school, despite the hard work of a succession of teachers. Life's like that.

The trouble with the teachers' case is that it seems so defensive, although it would look worse if the public knew about our own secret - that some teachers undermine this shaky system by their own actions. They can change a test's outcome with a cough or a raised eyebrow and if they accompany a finger pointed at an answer, any pupil can take the hint to reconsider.

However, the finger won't be needed if the teacher has had a copy of the test paper for weeks so that answers can be rehearsed. "Now, turn over your papers. I don't think you'll find any surprises."

Then there are schools that ignore assessment criteria and allocate levels to impress rather than to reflect reality. They are caught out when a child transfers to a new school and cannot perform to the level described. So treat the Sunday Times figures with caution. Some of them will not be true.

National testing is unreliable and easy to manipulate.

It cannot draw on a reservoir of goodwill since it has been tainted from the start. The testing system was introduced by Michael Forsyth, when he was Scottish education minister, to make primary schools accountable at a time when many of them had no idea how well they, or their pupils, were doing. Lord Forsyth's interference was opposed and resented by a conspiracy of the complacent - unions and education authorities which campaigned to defeat the plan.

Education officials demeaned themselves by calling meetings to persuade parents that primary testing would be traumatic for their children. Most parents are not stupid. Forsyth won and now children take tests in their stride.

But 15 years on, the resentment towards primary testing lingers within the Scottish educational establishment. Many of its members are sniffy and unhelpful when it is mentioned and declare, in patronising tones, that attainment is so much more than test results. Wow! You don't say!

We have to get our act together. There are problems, we know, but a culture of secrecy and defensiveness does schools no good. The energy that has been protecting the results would be better used in ironing out the problems and improving our communication with the public.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary in Perth.

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