Standardised assessment ‘feeds SEN industry’

11th December 2015 at 00:00
Inclusion expert says that schools must pledge for educational success rather than teach to the test

The introduction of standardised national assessment in Scotland will result in many children being wrongly identified with additional support needs (ASN), according to a leading international expert in equity and inclusion.

Professor Julie Allan fears that testing pupils from the age of 5 will drive them towards a “special needs industry” that medicates an ever-growing number of children.

She told Include and Empower, an international conference on the rights and wellbeing of disabled children, that public pledges from headteachers to parents that every child in their care will succeed are more effective at raising attainment than standardised testing – citing Swedish school Nössebro as evidence. The school rocketed up national league tables as a result of implementing such a policy.

Professor Allan, who worked in Scotland until 2013 but is now head of the University of Birmingham’s School of Education, was asked whether she felt that the introduction of standardised national assessment from P1 – the Scottish government’s plans also involve P4, P7 and S3 – could be compatible with its commitment to inclusive education.

“I think it’s absolutely incompatible and I don’t know why they think it’s a good idea,” she told the conference in Edinburgh.

She said that, in her experience, standardised testing could lead teachers and parents to find “problems” in children that are not necessarily there, leading to a greater number of children being identified as ASN.

There was a particular problem in the US, she said, where standardised testing “feeds the SEN [special educational needs] industry”.

Children there, she said, are diagnosed with a variety of conditions – and subsequently put on a programme of drugs – depending on their performance in the assessments.

Professor Allan is currently involved in a research project in Sweden that is tracking pupils’ progress until the age of 20. During her speech, she highlighted work at Nössebro, where, in 2007, the headteacher made a “very bold” public promise to pupils, parents and the wider community, that every child in his care would succeed at school.

He and his staff repeated this promise to pupils on a daily basis. They also made education more inclusive in a variety of ways, including the removal of special classes and redistributing the school’s specialist teachers into mainstream classes. These new approaches helped the school move from the bottom to the top of national league tables in three years.

Praising this approach, Professor Allan, who is also visiting professor at the University of Borås in Sweden, said that the leadership showed a willingness to go beyond results.

“A headteacher promising pupils, parents and the wider community that every child in their care will succeed shifts the focus from making sure that children are able to pass a particular test to making sure they succeed in a much more holistic way,” Professor Allan said.

The Essunga approach echoes University of St Andrews research, highlighted by TESS, which showed that encouraging pupils to think about one’s long-term educational prospects has a number of knock-on benefits (“Is aspiring to university good for pupils’ health?”, 13 November).

The conference was organised by charity Children in Scotland, whose chief executive Jackie Brock has concerns that standardised assessment will lead to repeated testing of pupils from the age of 5 despite “no evidence” that this approach is effective.

One teacher at the conference, who wished to remain anonymous, told Professor Allan about her fears: “Every teacher in every school knows that standardised testing is not good for them, for the children, or for the parents. It creates a culture of stress and anxiety. It doesn’t unlock potential in individuals and it’s terribly frustrating to see it happening.”

Children’s commissioner Tam Baillie, who chaired the conference, was less damning and suggested that more details were needed before a definitive view could be taken of the proposed assessments.

“It really depends on the nature of what goes into that test, so I think there’s a big debate here still to be had. I don’t think they’ve quite finalised what these [assessments] are going to look like,” he said.

Standardised national assessment was debated by the Scottish Parliament’s education and culture committee this week; Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur proposed an amendment to the Education Bill, unsuccessfully seeking to ditch the government’s proposals.


Additional needs add up

The rising number of pupils with additional support needs in Scotland

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