Scotland’s pupils are among the most tested in the world – and things are only likely to get worse, according to the Scottish founder of a summer school that takes teenagers on visits to some of the world’s most prestigious universities.
Jen Munro, who has worked with young people from 60 countries over the past decade, fears that the Scottish government’s controversial plans for standardised national assessment could diminish an education system that already puts “exceptional” stress on pupils and forces teachers to “teach to the test”.
Ms Munro is managing director of ISSOS (International Summer School of Scotland), which has run education programmes for thousands of pupils at the universities of St Andrews and Cambridge and has just branched out to Yale University in the US. She believes Scotland’s pupils are tested more than most of their international peers, in both primary and secondary school.
“Anytime I ever speak to a young person [from Scotland] I’ve never heard of pupils being tested quite as much as they are at the moment, which Curriculum for Excellence is obviously trying to move away from more. The level of stress on a 12-year-old is just exceptional,” she said.
“When you speak to teachers as well, they’re teaching to the test. I think with standardised testing that just becomes even worse.”
Standardised testing had “very little positive results” in the US – one of the few countries where Ms Munro saw pupils being tested even more than in Scotland – and she said the Scottish government’s proposal would “massively affect the way that teachers teach and the way that students learn”.
Ms Munro added: “From all the evidence that’s there, we’re not producing students with the life skills that we need, we’re producing stressed kids who have no need to be stressed. And kids are defining themselves based on test results – their self-confidence comes from test results.”
Ms Munro believes schools’ first priority should be the “emotional safety” of pupils, but said they often paid only lip-service to this: “My emphasis would always be on that side of things rather than curriculum and testing – they are by-products.”
Young people from countries such as Finland and Sweden arrived at her summer schools – which work with teenagers aged 13-18 – with more confidence than young Scots and had “well thought-out opinions on a lot of subjects”, Ms Munro said. This was because they had been “given the opportunity to genuinely learn, rather than spew out information”.
Scottish pupils were not as confident as others when presented with tasks based on skills not routinely taught in schools, such as debating and journalistic writing, Ms Munro added.
“Creatively, they seem to be stilted slightly [and] have less of an ability to think out of the box and be creative with their thinking, and I think it’s because they’re not allowed to be at school,” she said.
Although Ms Munro acknowledged that CfE had set out to change that, in practice she found it had fallen short for pupils. Nevertheless, she insisted that Scottish teenagers had a “grit and a determination not a lot of other countries have”.
Ms Munro’s comments about standardised national assessment echo concerns from many quarters. Last week TESS reported from a consultation event where teachers queried whether the government was more interested in improving teaching or in monitoring teachers, and suggested that children’s confidence and self-esteem could be damaged.