The SSLN can still create material gain for teachers

6th April 2018 at 00:00
The data gathered by the scrapped literacy and numeracy survey can reduce workload and bolster CfE

This year, for the first time since 2012, the Scottish government is not publishing the results of a Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN).

The original plan was simple: get rid of the SSLN and replace it with standardised testing, the results of which would be available on a school-by-school basis.

This, first minister Nicola Sturgeon insisted, was necessary to improve Scottish education. The SSLN was, after all, just a survey – and test results from every P1, P4, P7 and S3 pupil in Scotland would be much more reliable.

It wasn’t true – although that didn’t seem to matter. But it did leave the government in the middle of a curious paradox: SSLN data was apparently reliable enough to justify sweeping changes to education policy and structures in Scotland, while at the same time being too unreliable to allow us to measure what sort of progress was being made.

It soon emerged, however, that standardised test scores would not, in fact, be made public, and that plans to have every child in the country sit the tests all at once had been abandoned.

Instead, the government would begin publishing “teacher judgement data” for every school in Scotland, leaving us with less – and less useful – data about Scottish education than had previously been the case. It would also make like-for-like comparisons of any supposed progress impossible. A cynic might even suggest that this final consequence was part of the appeal.

Like most people, I presumed that this was the end of the road for the SSLN, but some recent digging has uncovered a surprising twist in the tale. It concerns not the SSLN survey itself, but rather the assessment materials that underpinned it.

The full range of that material is extraordinary: for numeracy, there are 1,200 “short answer” questions, 66 “extended tasks”, 42 “teacher-pupil interactive tasks” and a further 36 “mental calculation tasks”.

On the literacy side, there are 100 paper-based reading tasks consisting of a text and either “five or 10 associated questions”, 33 film clips with five questions each – and even 33 websites with five questions for each site.

All of this material, the documents point out, “have been through a thorough quality assurance and pre-test process and have been used in up to three literacy/numeracy surveys”.

Put simply, this material is extensive, reliable and – crucially – has been properly moderated for use within the framework of Curriculum for Excellence.

Recycling scheme

Obviously, this unique collection of literacy and numeracy materials couldn’t have been made available to teachers while the survey was still ongoing, but with the SSLN officially abandoned, a decision had to be made about what would happen to these resources. As is always the way of things, a working group was charged with considering the matter and making recommendations on any future use of the SSLN material.

Documents released by the government under Freedom of Information laws show that “the consensus among the group was that, due to the quality and volume of materials available, they were of great value to the teaching profession and discarding or archiving them was not appropriate”.

Instead, the “final proposal” from the group recommended that the material be “made available to support teaching and learning as part of CfE”.

The resources were to be provided via an online platform and offered as “skills development” resources, with a focus on the provision of teacher feedback as opposed to a student score. A “phased approach” to the release of these materials was also suggested.

These recommendations were put to the SSLN Project Management Board in February 2017, a meeting that appears to have been dominated by government officials.

One individual, whose name and position has been redacted from the documents by the government, was described as “strongly reticent” to the release of the SSLN material “as she did not think it fitted with the DFM’s focus on decluttering the landscape”.

In the end, the group decided to defer any decision around what to do with the material, but made clear that “suitable plans” must be put in place to arrange for the release of the documents.

Such plans to do not appear to have been developed. When I asked the government when the SSLN material would be made available, a spokesperson told me that “plans on the use of the SSLN assessment materials are still under consideration”. That was in January, almost a year after a range of professionals explicitly recommended that the material be made available to teachers.

One of the central criticisms of the implementation of CfE has been the failure to support teachers with adequate, high-quality resources. The original vision – teachers creating a wealth of contextualised materials that bridged the gap between teaching and assessment – is a laudable one. In the absence of proper exemplification – and amid the maelstrom of budget cuts and social pressures that has done such damage in recent years – it was never going to be properly achievable. Now it is seems that one opportunity to address this problem may be lost.

The benefits of releasing this material – reducing teachers’ workload and filling a gap in CfE – are presumably being balanced against the political risks of undermining the standardised testing system on which Nicola Sturgeon has effectively staked her reputation. This government is keen to push the idea of empowered teachers. Education secretary John Swinney has said time and again that his “guiding principle” is that decisions about children’s learning should be taken at school level. Yet here we are, waiting to find out if the government will consent to a wealth of valuable resources being made available to the profession that created them in the first place.

James McEnaney is a journalist, FE lecturer and former secondary teacher

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