The pendulum swings on testing

3rd October 2003 at 01:00
Personal learning plans for every child can provide the staging posts to success, says Ewan Aitken

Peter Peacock's announcement last week on the removal of national tests for the 5-14 curriculum is welcome. It is an indication that the accountability pendulum is swinging back from the narrow gauge of out-of-context attainment to signs of success being built around achievement.

We should not assume that this announcement will make schools less accountable. Instead, accountability will be both more meaningful and relate to all of education and not simply test results gathered together without reference to the effect pupils' individual journeys have on those scores. More importantly, it will mean schools no longer feel that they have to "teach to the test". Testing will not in future throw a dark shadow over the process it is supposed to shed light on.

The broader range of content that will create the Scottish Survey of Achievement (SSA) will reflect much more of what is significant in an effective education experience. The accountability that is a necessary part of education will be built on by measuring achievement in the round guided by the improvement framework.

Underlining this significant change in political evidence-gathering is a deeper tension that will always be part of education but not necessarily a destructive one. It is the tension between the needs and aspirations of the individual child and a system that is delivered collectively. What every parent and carer really wants to know is if a school is able to nurture a child's potential.

For too long we have attempted to articulate the efficacy of schools by gathering information about one small part of school life and then giving that meaning by comparing it against other schools - with little robustness in assessing the validity of those comparisons. Parents and carers then make judgments about their child based on a collection of data that does not speak about the ability of a school to meet their child's needs.

What Mr Peacock has announced will go some way to change that. But I am not convinced that it goes far enough. What is being suggested still relies heavily on collective achievements with little reference to the journey of each child. To revolutionise how we individualise the education experience and make the monitoring process a tool for learning and teaching, not a hindrance, we need a personal learning plan for every child.

The plan would begin in primary 1 and evolve throughout the child's school life. The plan would not only have overall goals but staging posts towards those goals. These would be directly related to each child's ability and potential and recognise the learning and teaching requirements in that process. There would be staging posts for all aspects of the educational experience, not simply those now described as academic. And it would be a plan that parents and carers were consulted about.

Using ICT, progress towards the staging posts can be regularly plotted, even by the child or young person if that is appropriate. And because parents and carers are part of the process, the report card and "three minutes per child per subject" process at parents' evenings would become a thing of the past. Sharing information about progress would become a regular occurrence.

Using flexibility in the curriculum, more ICT, the removal of age and stage restrictions, more opportunities for creativity and sport and a focus on achievement across the board, the plans can really be child-focused.

Progress within plans that would reflect the real achievements of each child can be measured and collated to express a school's effectiveness, instead of the present situation where one child's inability to pass a national test can mean a school is marked as having failed rather than succeeded.

This may mean more work for teachers in the early years. But the overall effect will be to create individual journeys that sit in the context of collective delivery unhindered by that delivery process. And once the plans are in place, helping them to evolve would be a tool and a guide to the learning and teaching needs of the children - thus significantly enhancing lesson preparation.

Teachers will still be able to teach in primary school both through groups and whole class. At secondary school, learning and teaching will continue to be subject based but, as with the primary school, progress for each child will be set against their own journey.

Progress towards staging posts will be the sign of success that each child would know as they achieve it. Teaching would be child centred without losing the common life of school, which is so important. And teachers would be accounting for real achievements by those in their charge, a liberating not a destructive experience as it is now.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for education on Edinburgh City Council and education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

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