Introduction of national testing for school-children is a trap-door for the SNP

The FM steers through the indyref debate
Dr John Robertson
Dr John Robertson

Dr John Robertson sounds a warning on the new Government’s plans to reform Scottish education…

Those who do not learn from the past……?

Yay…national test papers make good paper aeroplanes!

‘It will be the aim of a re-elected SNP government, under my leadership, to restore Scotland’s education system to pride of place as one of the very best in the world’. FM Nicola Sturgeon, April 2016

‘Achieving this aim, according to the SNP Manifesto, would require the reintroduction of national standardised testing to support a ‘revolution in transparency about school performance’ and allow precise targets to be set on the closing of the educational attainment gap between children from well-off and deprived backgrounds.’ (

My heart sank when I heard those words especially ‘reintroduction’. I’ll explain why below.

First, though, see this:

‘A Welsh neuroscientist has suggested that early testing of young children in our schools may not only be academically futile but actually damaging to their memory.’ (WalesOnline, 11th May 2016)

How’s that for recent and relevant research underpinning – less than a week old and from a neuroscientist, no less? No cheap, ‘Mock the Weak’ (not a typo Ed!), Welsh jokes, please! I’m not going to bother with any more references. Try searching yourself for ‘national testing young children’ and be inundated with negative findings. Find something, genuinely evidencing good outcomes for children in early years national testing, send it to me and I’ll eat my… decide!


As I drafted this piece, I thought, a National newspaper front page appeared, shouting at me: ‘Children are starting school too young.’

With ‘Scottish government adviser, Sue Palmer’  leading the new national campaign, I was also reminded of my own 40-year long, evidence-based, hostility to starting formal education, as opposed to structured play, too early. I knew back in the 1970s that many countries waited until children were seven years of age while in the UK  the norm was four to five years, with some parents in England, notably, reported to be pushing local authorities to allow entry before four years of age! In Germany, with some regional variation, the starting age is around seven years and has been for decades. See this rationale:

‘German children do not start the ‘Grundschule’ [Primary] until they are close to 7 years of age – this late start (by British standards) is considered by many Germans to be a much kinder and more useful age for children to start formal education because it allows them more time to develop vital skills, i.e. motor and co-ordination – skills so necessary for writing.’

These Germans, how did they think, after two disastrous wars, they would ever catch up with the UK economy, by being kind to their children? No wonder our children do so much better in international comparison surveys. They don’t? How can that be?

Getting back to the SNP manifesto, this kindly and intelligent campaign, called Upstart Scotland,  is presumably not a serious goer if we’re going to be testing at 5, 7, 11 and 15 as promised? See ‘A Stronger Scotland’, below.


Who is the advisor behind national testing? I’m guessing it can’t be the above Sensible Sue but I can find no trace of a name. I’d hoped I could laugh at them because I know all about their professional past. Try as I might, there’s clearly evidence of an absence here that tells us everything. Not one aspiring academic is prepared to come forward and be the intellectually authenticating face of these proposals because even the most careerist of them, especially the most careerist of them, is not daft enough write a professional suicide note for themselves. They all know it’s wrong and that it won’t work but even, or especially, those prepared to forget that, for a bit of fame and money, have strong survival skills.

After nearly 40 years in schools and in teacher education, I did learn some things about learning (Well only two big things, actually) and they’re much more than any politician I’ve met or heard can do….even Nicola. Back in the 1980s when I was a schoolteacher, Nicola was a common name for 10-12 year-olds. I don’t remember a ‘Ruth’ and ‘Kezia’ wasn’t even a real name then. So, I’ve said ‘Nicola, pay attention’ many times. I’m saying it again now.

As you know, I’m a confirmed supporter of independence for this beautiful wee, and quite learned, country. I’m currently an SNP member. I only joined recently because it would have been unethical in my previous role as a guardian of young morals, to be formally affiliated to a political party. As a member, I accept the need for discipline – independence first, second and everything. I’ll shut-up about NATO and the Royal Family for now. However, there are some things I can do for the party and this is one of them: Stop now, before it’s too late and we (SNP) become just another party launching another doomed educational initiative which the others will use to condemn us.


The great Ian Stronach, formerly of Stirling University and now Professor at Liverpool John Moores, taught me more in one piece of writing than any other single thinker on educational change and the harm politicians can do. Just the title of his paper, ‘Shouting Theatre in a Crowded Fire: ‘Educational effectiveness’ as cultural performance’ , taught me something by itself. The full reference is below.

In short, however, he showed that educational reform led by politicians is commonly little more than ritual with only temporary artificial success, fuelled by sheer novelty for the learners and extra resources, followed by a period (years, decades) of collective amnesia and diminishing returns and then a new cohort of politicians leads us through a repeat of the whole bloody charade.

I’m not sure if Stronach said this, or whether I’m imagining he did, but I remember reading about an American educational psychologist, back in the 1920s, who may have said, should have said: ‘Not those bloody competencies again!’ Here’s how it often goes:

1. Researcher: Our 7 year-olds are not as good at mathematics as German or Japanese ones.

2. Politician:  Our 7 year-olds are not as good at mathematics as German or Japanese ones! Teachers are useless. We’ll need to make them more effective.

3. Academic Publisher: Our national testing system (two for the price of three) will help you increase mathematics scores.

4. Politician: Oooooh! Here’s more money, expensive new glossy resources, more (fixed-term) staffing and proper tests for schools…..until the budget dries up.

5. Seven year-old: Mum, I’m scared. I don’t want to go to the school today. We’re having tests.

6. Teacher: If you insist (adopts the new curriculum then applies the tests).

7. Researcher: The strategy suggests minor improvements.

8. Teacher: It’s making things worse, narrowing the curriculum, reducing contact time with learners, increasing admin.

9. Politician: Our strategy is working!

10. Years pass, researcher gets professorship then retires, the politician is exposed for something but gets a peerage, teachers return to old levels of staffing and funding, retire and die, children get….who knows, who cares now?

11. Researcher: Our 11 year-olds are worse at science than Lilliputian ones.

12. Politician: Our 11 year-olds are worse at science than Lilliputian ones!

13. Return to beginning of ritual cycle. Repeat forever and ever.

You might wonder why the Great Stronach is in Liverpool when he should be here advising Nicola. The story I heard was that Her Majesty’s Schools Inspectorate (HMI) wouldn’t fund his research projects and so he had to migrate to England. Perhaps the problem was that his research didn’t prove that what the HMI wanted to do in the first place, because they knew best? Why can’t researchers just prove that government policies work? What’s the point in having researchers if they’re just going to cause trouble?

I know closing the attainment gap is the big issue for the next session of the Scottish Parliament. I know why. It’s because the SNP genuinely believe it’s a serious problem. They mean well. It’s a challenge and a chalice any party of government finds it almost impossible to refuse. It’s because the other parties dare them to try and so they cannot leave it alone.

Here’s the mistake, made before and forgotten about, over the decades. The attainment gap is between pupils in schools so that must be where we should intervene to narrow it – WRONG AGAIN! Pay attention Nicola…national testing of 5, 7, 11 and 13 year-olds will NOT close the gap. Indeed, no purely school-based initiative will do so.

Here are the only two things I learned in 40 years and that I hold to be true:

1. Only society-wide reform can significantly change the outcomes of schooling. By all means give money to teachers but spend as much as you can on better homes, better school-buildings, better transport links (safe cycling), income and care support for parents, preparation and assessment time for teachers, a real living wage (>£10 per hour), a fairer, low-stress benefit system, zero-tolerance of domestic abuse, clean air and so on. Make a better society and schools will thrive in it. It’s bloody obvious to me.

2. Stop ritually changing what teachers and schools do, from the top. It’s like bombing Syria. You just make things worse no matter your intentions. Governments should, among other things, provide a broad outline curriculum to make sure there’s a degree of national entitlement for pupils, set standards for accommodation, for health and safety, for open spaces, for class sizes, for teacher training, for salaries, and provide enough funds to make these feasible; then back off! Let the school become a place of mutual-respect, optimism, kindness, like the ones in more equal societies, and wait patiently (decades) for the standards to rise. Let those independent, international research teams, like PISA, tell you if it’s working. Have faith. Stay calm.

Dr John Robertson, Dean of Education 2000 (Just that year)


A Stronger Scotland:

Stronach, I. (1999) Shouting theatre in a crowded fire: ‘Educational effectiveness’ as cultural performance, Evaluation 5 (2), 173–193.

Wales Online (2016) at:


  1. Couldn’t agree more John, well said. There’s plenty of research to show that the attainment gaps starts long before school age including the current Growing up in Scotland reports on all aspects concerning children’s learning, development and wellbeing (see )

    I think Nicola suggested they needed some kind of measure to see if schools were effective rather than testing and comparing children but it’s hard to separate the 2. However while HMI can pick up on weaknesses in schools or teachers performance and educational attainment it doesn’t appear to satisfy the call for standardised/concrete evidence about what is working well and how to make it happen everywhere. Possibly the money that would be spent on devising tests, glossy folders and preachy websites to explain the tests, salaries for middle management figures to whip schools into shape and to develop resources etc could be used to tackle poverty and social inequalities instead. It will be interesting to see what plans are proposed and hopefully the Scot Govt will have the courage to back down if they cannot honestly justify this return to national testing. Lets hope they’re listening!

  2. I spent a few years in teaching and educational research and felt that HMI were a baleful influence on educational progress based on sound research. Their own methodology and background were (are?) inimical to drawing well-founded conclusions and their recommendations were (are?) too often simply following fashion or political ideology. Unfortunately, Directors of Education, (themselves often having little knowledge of research methodologies) and councillors held HMI in misguided great esteem. I would sack them all and fund a number of top research centres, such as that at Stirling where I learnt a lot from the late, great Donald McIntyre.

  3. PS correct me if I’m wrong, but I understand one of the most important predictors of success at school is still parental income. It’s poverty that holds children back.

  4. This isn’t a technical comment John, as I simply don’t have enough knowledge of any educational system, rather a personal experience from a long time ago.
    I went to school in the 1940/50s and the big dread of my life was the “quali”, sat when I was twelve years old, so much so that I ended up in hospital, so great was my worrying.
    Now whether this makes any sense to a professional such as yourself I don’t know, but my mother always insisted that the starting age for school was too early, and that the child should be assessed, without exams, on their course work over the school terms.
    Would this work, or is it too simple an idea?

    • Sorry to hear about your experience with the quali. I wonder how common that was in those times? It wad kind of all or nothing for children’s future wasn’t it? I went to a tough school where passing the quali got you a doing. No winning!

  5. Once upon a time there were people who had solved the problem of the universe. We have shown, they said, that our theory of matter works – that atoms behaving like colliding billiard balls explains everything. Therefore, if we knew the position and velocity of all atoms at a given time we could determine the future of the universe.

    Then that b’stard Heisenberg spoiled it all.

    However, you would think it would have been evident that, long before Mr Heisenberg, it would have obvious that education is not a deterministic process. Particularly between age zero and – – – . It is pretty much unavoidable that we teach bairns with our radically changed adult minds – but we could try.

      • Me, subtle, that’ll be the day
        (when I die).

        Yes, I’m against national testing.

        I don’t know exactly how I learn things. Other people are a complete mystery. And bairns, educationally, are on another planet. But what we do know, because it’s self evident, is that they will never learn things to the same extent ever again after infancy/early childhood.

        One example – infants in some countries (but not here unless you are lucky enough to have bilingual parents) grow up learning two, three or more languages. I have no idea how young brains manage this, but it is no more mysterious than how they manage one language, or learn to sort out the maelstrom of other information coming their way. But they do, and what’s more, they are desperate to do it. So maybe the main thing we have to do for infants is to keep the lights on. We can’t see in the dark or learn to speak if nobody talks to us.

        So we need to concentrate our educational efforts on bairns between zero and – – – . And we need a different kind of teacher for infants than for more formal education.

        And then there’s the rest – poverty, not being fed in the morning, not being cared for, milk teeth rotten with soft drinks, the return of scurvy. As you say, it needs more than a bunch of teachers to sort that out.

        • Now I get it. Everything you said there, correct. Have you noticed that bairns is an anagram of brains but weans isn’t? I moved from Bairnland to Weanland in 1984 yet got brainier if you go by qualies. You don’t go by qualies?

          • Qualies are fine as far as they go – I got brainier by moving from mill country to Auld Reekie. But there are swathes of folk out there in workland who are more interested in whether or not you can do the job. Having been involved in a bit of building work over the years, connections( i.e. knowing tradesmen who are good at their job) are pure gold.

            Anargams are the bane of the keyboard dyslexic.

            There’s nothing wrong with Waynes.

  6. The recent OECD report on Scottish Schools – December 2015 – takes a different point of view on testing in primary schools and was generally supportive of the Scottish Government’s position on testing in primaries. The report highlighted the piecemeal approach by the Local Councils which meant an absence of national data about performance. This in turn made it difficult to frame policies that would properly address issues.

    The report did acknowledge that the SG had put in place policies for pre-school children that would help to address the gap that exists between children from different backgrounds at that stage which in turn reduces their ability to do well at school.

    The report also drew attention to the reduction in research being carried out particularly in evaluating various initiatives.

  7. For piecemeal read local, low-key, low-stress, focused? The OECD don’t really differ from what most educationists believe, they just ignore us and push ahead with top-level, bureaucratic, politicised, inhumane engineering

    • I can see why folk might want to try and standardize education/schools so that children are all getting a similar education but this does create difficulties. It means you do need some kind of measure to make sure children are getting taught to the standard and it’s hard to do this unless you test what they know. Then, once you start testing you get an education geared towards the tests rather than any depth and breadth. The curriculum for excellence was meant to move us away from this and trust teachers to deliver, but this makes it easy for critics to hammer a system with no hard facts on what is working. I personally think that politicians should be very wary of interfering and have faith in schools/teachers to do the right thing – let inspectors pick up on unsatisfactory teaching and let things evolve naturally rather than imposing top down policies. Inspect schools not children?

  8. This is the kind of thing that Robin McAlpine has been saying for a while. I am afraid to say that it has the ring of truth to it. Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP have made a rod for their own backs over the attainment gap issue. As you say John the attainment gap in education is down to multiple factors and reasons. I cannot see testing making any real difference. So why does Nicola Sturgeon think it will? I have heard no real compelling intellectual argument from her or the SNP over this. We do need to know how this and other policies are developed. As far as I can tell the leadership seem to be coming up with them themselves. This is really not sustainable

    • Yes, who is their inspiration for this? Only the academic for late-start is out in the open. They’re all hiding in their studies praying their new principal doesn’t come knocking with an idea for them.

  9. Superb article and 100 percent on the button. We should be focusing on learning , developing skills and the ability to use skills and knowledge in applications. Performing in tests is not learning! Also “closing the gap” is a myth . This election pledge is doomed to fail and a political sound bite.
    Robert O Donnell

  10. Well-designed tests are useful, but in a very limited way and certainly will not have the transformative effect on educational achievement that politicians and the media seem to believe with an evangelical frenzy. Indeed, in that context, it will have a seriously bad effect on children’s learning, and on the performance of teachers. We see that with the baleful effects of ‘the league tables’. The drive for testing is a drive for control of teachers by HMI and directorates as an end in itself. They want the power but not the responsibility. When testing fails to get the increases desired, they will blame the teachers and ‘feckless parents’ and ‘feral children’ and impose more testing and compliance demands.

    I am not an SNP member and have voted for them only twice in 48 years. However, I am deeply disappointed that the FM has stated this as her policy. It will end in tears, and the alternative will be ‘test even more’ Ruth plus ‘illiterate weans’ Kez. A very sad prospect from which our children will suffer.

    The answer lies in the list of things listed in Mr Robertson’s first point. I would be more specific – give far more support directly to mothers from the time children are born, rebalance the distribution of educational funding towards preschool and early years, tackle the stranglehold the EIS has on educational policy, increase the amount of exercise children get in the outdoors in CLEAN air, provide nutritious meals for all children.

    Full disclosure – 40 years in schools, head teacher of two and acting head in a third, Masters degree in education, career long EIS member.

  11. Nicola paid attention all the way through nodding her head, agreeing, then she came to this bit …..And wait patiently (decades) for the standards to rise” …… Throws the iPad down screaming….. Ah’ve telt them it’ll be fixed in five years…….

    • I see it clearly now…all of the dark….stop! I’ve developed lyricsitis. She set this a a personal target to be judged on in four years. Who on earth suggested this? Daft daft daft.

  12. OK here’s the getoutofjail SNP. say the tests will be carried out by the regular familiar class teacher with no ominous labelling or announcements in school or to pupils or parents – for FORMATIVE purposes only. No national database. Class teacher uses results to modify teaching. Class teacher discusses results with level above and refers in general sense in planning reports to again one level of staff above. Senior ot prinipal teachers report in general sense to HT. HT completes questionnair for scot gov. Nuff! Tories say not scientific. Tell them inappropriate to be more invasive. End of session, class teacher passes results privately to teacher for next session. Petsonal data destroyed after 24 months.

  13. I follow an American early years blogger who is currently railing against similar stuff in American schools. Today he hits out at standardised testing Some of his earlier posts look at the damage current and past politicians have inflicted on children in the name of preparing children for working life, catching up with other nations etc. Sad that this problem is so widespread

  14. Did anyone listen to the awful Kaye Adams programme on Radio Scotland this morning which was about the proposals regarding testing. Either Ms Adams has done little research into the issues of assessment, (When people tried to point out the different types and uses of assessment, she announced ‘testing is testing’ as if that decided the matter.) or she is propagandising on behalf of the Tories, since testing is a definite Tory issue, despite new Labour adopting it. I tend to think that it is a mix of both. In a previous education programme which was about the deployment of private funding into public education, she clearly presented this as a ‘good thing’, a no-brainer. When Jim McColl came on and gave a very powerful defence of public education, she was clearly miffed and scrabbled around for arguments to support her ‘private = good’ ‘fact’ she pointed to Mr McColl’s being a successful businessman as support for her thesis. Despite all the parents I heard on the programme all condemning testing is powerful ways, she was clearly determined to pursue her propaganda. It was on a par with Louise White’s refusal to even countenance any statement that that asserted that the current Rangers FC is not the same company/club which was liquidated.


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