Aberdeen is to reintroduce group screening for primary pupils from next August, the city council's education committee decided on Tuesday. The controversial policy was abandoned by Grampian Region several years ago and two attempts to revive the practice in 1992 and 1994 failed on the grounds of workload and because it would have cut across assessment in the 5-14 programmes.
Jon Mager, assistant director responsible for special educational needs, said these were now barely convincing arguments as a survey of Aberdeen primaries revealed that more than half carried out group screening while others used tests for allocating learning support. The result is that two-thirds of primary pupils were now experiencing screening.
The drive to introduce early intervention programmes and the need to establish value-added measures of pupil progress have been additional factors behind Aberdeen's decision.
John Stodter, the director of education, told The TES Scotland: "it is time to move beyond social argument for allocating extra help to schools to learning arguments".
Mr Mager said detailed consultation would take place with headteachers, unions and learning support staff on the timing and type of tests. "From the authority's point of view, we need to standardise the arrangements. While screening within schools is valuable, the really valuable information comes when every school is doing it," he said.
Iain Smithers, headteacher of Cults primary, welcomed the early involvement of heads but added: "When you screen, you find something. I trust that sufficient resources will be made available to meet the needs that will be uncovered. "
Mr Smithers, who chairs the Aberdeen Association of Primary Headteachers, said the majority of his colleagues would be in favour of attacking learning problems as early as possible.
His views were echoed by Mary Matheson, a teacher at Seaton primary and a member of the council working party that backed the move. "Teachers will be wary until they see the details," Mrs Matheson said. "There is no point in screening if you are not prepared to meet pupils' needs. In the past it was very much a case of, 'here's your class, get on with it'."
Mr Mager agreed that screening had to be backed by support. His report to councillors pledged a review of learning support in the spring term. Results from screening could "moderate" the allocation of learning support staff, currently decided by levels of deprivation based on the 1991 census.
Mrs Matheson supported the education department's intention to be more specific about learning needs and thereby secure "a toehold in the education budget" as more and more pupils are educated "inclusively" in mainstream schools. The 5-14 assessment regime was too broad-brush to help secondary schools test for specific learning problems, she added.
Aberdeen is also planning to extend baseline screening for pupils entering nursery and primary school. The likely instrument is the Early Years Easy Screen, developed by the National Foundation for Educational Research south of the border and already used in some of the authority's schools.
The council's working party on screening stressed the need for "one well-regarded standardised test for simultaneous use at a particular stage in all schools".
The group's report adds: "The amount of testing which currently goes on unofficially would seem to indicate a belief in its educational value (particularly as a basis for establishing differentiated learning) which has outlasted the introduction of 5-14 assessment.
"By implication screening therefore already constitutes an element of 'workload'."