The parents, teachers and headteachers had arrived at the Edinburgh conference centre from as far away as Clackmannanshire, the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway.
But the geographical spread of the attendees did little to disguise the many unoccupied seats as the Scottish government’s consultation over the new National Improvement Framework (NIF), which includes national testing in literacy and numeracy, got under way.
Officials from Education Scotland and the Scottish government’s learning directorate wondered whether the unseasonably warm evening had put people off. Whatever the reason, the recent NIF consultation events have been criticised. According to Eileen Prior, head of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, the meetings held in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and Aberdeen earlier this month and last month were “hastily organised” and “poorly timed”.
However, the primary teacher from a small, two-teacher school in Dumfries and Galloway who rushed to Edinburgh for 6pm on a Tuesday evening found himself in conversation with education secretary Angela Constance, Graeme Logan, the man leading the development of the NIF, and head of the learning directorate Fiona Robertson. He wanted to have his say, the teacher told them. Unfortunately, he was one of just a handful of people on that balmy September evening who did. There were 50 spaces; just 25 were taken.
The government’s plans to introduce national assessments in literacy and numeracy in 2017 in P1, P4, P7 and S3 had “dominated the air time” when it came to the new framework, Mr Logan, director of attainment and improvement at Education Scotland, told the gathering. But the framework was about more than assessing children, he insisted; in total there were six drivers for improvement (see panel, page 18).
Measuring the impact of teacher professionalism and school leadership on pupils’ learning was potentially as controversial as national testing and needed to be debated, Mr Logan told TESS. The introduction of the NIF signalled the biggest change to primary education since the new curriculum, he added.
“The debate has been dominated by the children’s assessment element but we are looking at all the key components of Scottish education and we need a full debate on these too,” he said.
However, the teachers, headteachers and parents attending the event remained preoccupied with the Scottish government’s plans to introduce national assessment.
Some commented that Scotland-specific standardised assessments, designed to chime with Curriculum for Excellence, could be a useful tool for teachers. But the majority were at best sceptical and at worst hostile to the idea, and the questions came thick and fast. How would the new assessments be delivered? Would children with additional support needs be able to take part? Would the tests be online? What would the impact be on children’s confidence and self-esteem if they couldn’t answer the questions? Why did every child need to be tested? How would they avoid league tables and why were they working to such tight timescales?
Concerns were also raised about how useful the test results would be to classroom teachers who had not been trained to interrogate the data, leaving a “massive gap” in their knowledge.
Attendees questioned whether the government was motivated by a desire to improve learning and teaching, or simply to monitor schools.
Another, a secondary head, said: “What’s the evidence behind this [the NIF]? If we were faced with a more robust understanding of what this could achieve perhaps we would be less critical or sceptical. Just now the issue really seems to be that national government can’t answer questions.”
Much of the government’s position was explained by Education Scotland’s Mr Logan, who said the framework was really about little more than “local improvement and national assurance”. He added that the tests were likely to be online, and one of the “fundamental design principles” was that they would be diagnostic and adaptive.
“We don’t want kids to sit in front of these tests and think ‘I am failing’,” he told one group during the roundtable discussions. “If you look at the experiences and outcomes for writing, few aspects could be assessed through standardised assessment. Most of the evidence about how well children are progressing will come from their classwork and other evidence.
“This is about being clever about the place for standardised assessment and making sure it does not have any more status than any other piece of assessment evidence.”
Although ministers were committed to reporting on the test results, there had been “no decision about what data will be reported and how we are going to do that”, Mr Logan said. If a range of data was published when the government produced its annual report on the framework every December then there would be no “iconic measure” on which the system could be judged, he added.
Mr Logan also insisted that the renewed focus on assessing children brought about by the introduction of the framework was an opportunity to cut down on the amount of assessment that was going on in some primaries.
“By bringing clarity to what’s needed to support teacher judgement about whether or not a child is achieving a level, we can reduce workload and the burden of assessment,” he said.
The audience – albeit small – was not convinced. Clearly the jury is still very much out.
How the tests will work
Here’s what we know so far about the national tests in numeracy and literacy:
The assessment specification has been written by teachers, headteachers, academics and directors, as well as government officials.
The tests will be adaptive and diagnostic.
Children with additional support needs will not be excluded. This includes pupils with English as an additional language.
The tests are likely to be online.
Trials will take place next year.
P1, P4, P7 and S3 pupils will sit them for the first time in 2017.
Results will be published in December 2017 but to what extent is undecided.
How improvement will be monitored
First minister Nicola Sturgeon announced the Scottish government’s plans to introduce a National Improvement Framework (NIF), including national assessment of literacy and numeracy at primary and secondary level, at the beginning of last month.
A draft framework was published to coincide with the announcement. It outlines when the government expects to deliver the different aspects of the framework and highlights the six drivers for improvement it will be monitoring. These are:
Assessment of children’s progress.
To read the draft NIF for Scotland, go to bit.ly/draftNIF
To watch a video of Ms Sturgeon announcing national testing in the Scottish Parliament, visit bit.ly/ScottishParliamentTV
Check for events in your area: local authorities are taking forward their own engagement meetings.
Look out for events aimed at children and young people, which will take place in late October and November.
Engage with the resources being sent to schools for teachers and parents who cannot attend meetings.
Tweet Scottish education secretary Angela Constance, @aconstancemsp