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

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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.’ (FT.com)

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…..you decide!

STRUCTURED

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.

EVIDENCE

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.

REFORM

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)

References:

A Stronger Scotland: http://news.scotland.gov.uk/News/A-stronger-Scotland-1c7c.aspx

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

Wales Online (2016) at: http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/neuroscientist-says-national-school-testing-11318168