Children from the wealthiest areas in Scotland are already 14 months ahead of their peers from poorer neighbourhoods when they start school, new research reveals – highlighting the extent of the government’s challenge to close the attainment gap.
The figures (bit.ly/PipsStats) were published quietly on the same day that first minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed she would press ahead with controversial plans for national testing – a measure designed to kick-start efforts to eliminate the gap.
The tests, which are part of the broader National Improvement Framework (NIF), will be introduced in 2017 after pilots later this year. Ms Sturgeon said that they would “provide better and more consistent data about our children’s performance [in school] than we have ever had before”.
While the testing announcement generated numerous headlines, the publication of Performance Indicators in Primary Schools (Pips) figures – looking at the progress in P1 of almost 20,000 children from 394 schools – went almost unnoticed (see box, opposite).
As well as highlighting the gap in attainment when they started, the Pips figures showed that pupils’ progress during P1 varied by up to 14 months for maths, depending on which school they went to.
But Neil Mathers, head of Scotland at Save the Children, was shocked by the “gaping chasm” in development between the most and least deprived pupils. “Too many of these children will start school struggling to learn and never catch up,” he said, calling for investment in early years to narrow this “inexcusable gap”.
Speaking at the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI) in Glasgow, Ms Sturgeon made it clear that she wanted her record to be judged on whether the attainment gap was closed. She argued that the accumulation of national data was a crucial part of the solution.
The EIS teaching union’s fears that testing could narrow learning and lead to an obsession with school league tables were partly assuaged last week as education secretary Angela Constance insisted that nothing would “trump teacher judgement”. The EIS remains unconvinced, though, that the standardised tests in P1, P4, P7 and S3 will prove useful.
Others are sceptical, too. Professor John MacBeath, a pioneer of school self-evaluation and a major influence on Scottish and English education in recent times, said international delegates at ICSEI were surprised by the “retrograde” step. Several other high-profile Scottish attendees told TESS they had also picked up on this mood (see box, above).
Professor MacBeath said that whatever the claims of the Scottish government, experience showed that good intentions for standardised national tests tended to become “corrupted”. He added that standardised assessment had had an “incredibly dominating and narrowing effect on the curriculum” in England.
“I know that Scotland would want to take account of the downsides of all that, and produce something that was more considered, more flexible, more liberal, but once you go down that road it’s seriously problematic,” Professor MacBeath said. In reality, such plans were “perverted all the time into something comparative and bureaucratic”, he argued.
Professor Louise Hayward, a University of Glasgow assessment expert and member of an NIF group of experts, said: “Standardised assessments are not intrinsically good or bad – what matters is the way in which data is collated and used.”
This data should form part of a far broader range of evidence that helped teachers to decide what worked, she said, adding that the Scottish government’s emphasis on the central importance of teacher judgement was “really important”.
Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at the University of Edinburgh, said that one way or another – perhaps through Freedom of Information requests – full publication of “raw results at all levels” was inevitable.
He also anticipated problems with the emphasis on teacher judgement if that clashed with the evidence from raw results, since teachers had “a tendency to overestimate children’s level of achievement”.
P1 progress: key figures from Pips
Difference in educational progress of new P1 pupils from the least and most deprived areas
Variation in reading progress depending on which school pupils go to (14 months for maths)
Proportion of P1s who spoke English as an additional language in 2014, up from 3.2% in 2012 – a rise that may have contributed to a slight decline in Pips scores
How far P1 girls were ahead of boys in vocabulary acquisition, phonological awareness and early reading
Proportion of boys whose P1 entry was deferred, compared with 9% of girls
Estimated time it would take to replicate the reading progress of a child in P1 if they hadn’t gone to school (3 years for maths)
Amount by which Scottish children starting P1 are ahead of children of the same age in England for reading (2 months for maths)
Source: Scottish government, bit.ly/PipsStats
‘You can’t assess to greatness’
A salutary lesson from the US on the perils of over-testing comes from Ohio State University’s Lisa Riegel. She told ICSEI delegates that policymakers rather than educators are driving what is happening in US schools, where assessment of children has increased hugely.
“Guess what happened? The achievement gap has widened…You can’t really assess a child to greatness,” says Dr Riegel (pictured below), executive director of the Educational Partnerships Institute.
There is a big educational divide from kindergarten level and “by high school graduation we have not done a very good job of closing that gap”, she adds. The US testing regime has helped to make teachers “miserable” and too often measures what happens without explaining why it happens.
Poor maths scores, for example, do not necessarily require large amounts to be spent on specialist programmes – there might be a far easier remedy. If maths is timetabled at the start of the day, Dr Riegel argues, then poorer children could be disadvantaged because they tend to arrive at school late; simple rescheduling might drive up scores.
Meanwhile, Dr Kim Schildkamp from the University of Twente in the Netherlands argues that data only becomes useful when educators are clear about their goals and therefore know what it will be used for. A sophisticated mix is essential, too, with qualitative information used alongside more traditional testing.
And education that relies largely on teachers’ judgement is not enough. “Teacher judgement is important, but a lot of the time the assumptions that teachers have are just wrong,” she says.
Mixed political reaction
The political reaction to Scotland’s national testing plans – and the broader National Improvement Framework – has been mixed.
The policy resembles what the Conservatives and Labour had been calling for before Nicola Sturgeon made her announcement last autumn.
And it has been broadly welcomed by the Conservatives – Liz Smith, spokeswoman on young people, hailed the prospect of “better-quality testing at key stages in a pupil’s school career”.
But Labour opportunity spokesman Iain Gray said that the scheme would “do nothing to close the gap between the richest [pupils] and the rest”.
Liberal Democrat education spokesman Liam McArthur denounced national standardised testing as “a Thatcherite policy [that] will only increase workload for teachers”.
Isla O’Reilly, Green Party education spokeswoman, said that it was “simply not credible for ministers to hope that the data won’t result in the kind of league-table culture that causes stress for families”.