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Testing times for a new minister

So external testing in the early secondary years is cancelled. Is that it then? Is the 5-14 programme now to become 5-12 within weeks of Labour taking charge? Let's be clear about one thing, for the fogs of complacency seem to be gathering once more. The Inspectorate has said that Scottish pupils are "making insufficient progress in their learning between P7 and S2". The Howie report said it too: the first two years of secondary school are the weak spot.

Of this Michael Forsyth, the previous Secretary of State, was fully aware. Nevertheless, national testing Forsyth-style was to have been voluntary - no compulsion was envisaged. The proposed national tests format was in the spirit of 5-14. Each test would have covered broadly two different levels, giving a choice to teachers to match tests to pupil' primary achievements.

Thinking parents will be conscious that this flat and somewhat uninspiring cancellation will have two knock-on effects, neither entirely desirable. An external test set at the child's current level in the curriculum would have given parents and teachers external assurance of progress and judgment. Additionally, the second round of national testing, at the end of S2, would have provided a worthwhile indicator of value added by the secondary school during those two crucial and currently far from satisfactory years. Such value-added measurements would surely have been welcomed by both schools and councils, in their quest for quality and transparency.

Parents might fairly ask why the S1S2 testing proposal was necessary when Scotland has a national guideline curriculum in place. A good question, to which the answer is that the testing proposals resulted from the frustration of the last Secretary of State at the assorted obstacles put in the programme's path at secondary level.

Scotland is now faced with a situation where 90 per cent of primary schools are delivering their part of 5-14 in maths and English with increasing confidence and competence. At the same time, and after four years of the programme, only 9 per cent of secondary pupils have been tested in reading, 5 per cent in writing and 8 per cent in mathematics. Not perhaps joyful news in maths, for example, when four Scottish surveys since 1983 have noted a consistent decline.

Perhaps the new Minister for Education has plans up his sleeve to complete the delivery of 5-14. Let's keep hoping, although the omens don't appear too promising when union appeasement seems to be a recurring theme, as with backing down on compulsory teacher appraisal.

After eight years, voluntary appraisal has failed to take hold. But Brian Wilson has been quick to disown recent Conservative proposals to make appraisal statutory, preferring, it appears, the hassle-free status quo. Does he already forget the brave words in Labour's Every Child Is Special? "Scottish Labour is determined that poor performance and complacency will be tackled". Or "teachers will be expected to demonstrate certain competencies". Or even, can you believe, "there are those who may find the culture shock of the pursuit of excellence difficult to adjust to".

Let's hope at least that there is no reneging at Government level on the introduction of level F. If the ideal of individual progression is to become a reality for each child, there must be no more marking time in S1 for achieving children. Come to think of it, level F should also solve the "setting" debate once and for all, for differentiated teaching in S1S2 will follow as day does night once 5-14 is integrated into these years. But that, of course is the problem facing the minister.

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