We owe it to Scottish pupils to get it right at all stages
In response to the national consultation on assessment and qualifications, School Leaders Scotland proposed that literacy and numeracy tests should occur in P7 as well as in S3 or S4. It was clear our view struck a chord with many people contributing to the parliamentary debate on the subject last month, and also in subsequent media commentary. There were, naturally, others who disagreed.
HMIE's report Improving Scottish Education 2005-8 then made it clear that, while there are many things we can be proud of in our education system, there are some significant and pressing issues which need attention, particularly in the P5-S2 area. The recent Timss (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) data also suggested we were not keeping pace with the performance of pupils in other countries.
The consultation drew 1,800 responses and it was perhaps natural that the media seized on the differences of opinion expressed by several meaningful parties. However, we believe there is more common ground between ourselves and other organisations than various soundbites might suggest. It is time to elaborate our views as a way of reinforcing the mutual respect and understanding which already exists.
First, let's step away from this as education professionals and look at it from the perspective of an outsider. There is an accountability issue. Much money is invested in education, and it is perfectly reasonable to ask if children have reached an expected standard at any given stage. More importantly, it is also essential to identify accurately problems which may be addressed with appropriate resources and support.
Primary schools educate children for seven years - longer if you include early years' provision - and it seems not unreasonable that there should be robust, nationally-consistent assessment information available for each child at the end of the process, as children make the transition to secondary school.
In contrast, secondary pupils are over-assessed in S4-6, and we should be streamlining the current system of qualifications and assessment while retaining external validation.
SLS did not argue against introducing literacy and numeracy assessment in S3 or S4, accepting the concerns of other bodies about the readiness of pupils for the world of work. But we are concerned that testing only at that point is far too late for corrective action. Both sectors, we suspect, accept that external accountability is to be expected - and current financial difficulties will lead to other parts of the public service being similarly scrutinised.
Second, aspects of the existing arrangements have been beneficial - so why discard them? Some form of baseline assessment might be usefully amalgamated with transition information already in use in many authorities across the country. Primary staff make a strong case when they argue for the validity of a teacher's judgment on the basis of having worked with a class of pupils for a whole year: they will see more than any test will reveal.
Secondary staff empathise with this since they are required to make a judgment themselves in SQA estimates. Teacher judgments and external data could thus be forwarded with appropriate weightings, so that secondary schools are aware of latent potential not caught on the day of any baseline assessment. Schools would therefore be in a better position to support the child in S1.
We do not favour the suggestion that a child should be held back a year at primary school on the basis of an assessment of basic skills. On the rare occasions that it might happen, it should be the result of a meeting between professionals and parents to decide if it is in the child's best interests, with full consent of the parents. If a year is to be repeated, the child should automatically be eligible for extra support.
Clearly, the primary school will have a view as to the most appropriate times to use baseline assessment as a constructive addition to existing assessment information. That could appropriately be at the internal transition points on the nursery to P7 range. This then facilitates targeted support for pupils experiencing difficulty with basic skills.
We would hesitate to endorse the Scottish Survey of Achievement in its current form as a source of robust, useful data for school improvement since it only tests a sample of pupils each year in one curricular area. Indeed, the use of the SSA is really an irrelevance in this discussion.
A number of schools in the primary and secondary sectors use commercial assessment materials for baseline and predictive purposes because of their dissatisfaction with the current system of gathering attainment data. Would a coherent common approach not be preferable to this patchwork practice?
The comments in the HMIE report and Timss cannot be ignored. We have to do better and we need to demonstrate progress. We must accept accountability for the education we deliver. In the eyes of many people outwith education, a reluctance to accept robust assessment systems may be perceived as the profession closing ranks to protect its members. This is an implication which is rightly resented by the overwhelming majority of teachers who deliver a high standard of education for pupils.
There is advantage to everyone in what we suggest: government receives robust data on progress, schools can plan and provide more appropriately for all pupils, and pupils are better supported. The key purpose is to allow teachers to make the best choices for pupils on the basis of the strongest and most secure evidence of their progress.
We owe it to the pupils of Scotland to get it right at each stage of education. It is not unreasonable to expect that there should be robust data at the end of P7, in S3 or S4 and at the end of a child's school career.
Ronnie Summers is education convenor of School Leaders Scotland.