League tables are coming....and the FM won't stop them

Yesterday the First Minister confirmed that journalists will be able to publish school league tables following the introduction of the National Standardised Testing.  Nicola Sturgeon has previously hidden behind weasel words to avoid such an admission because she knows that league tables are incredibly damaging to education.  When she was in opposition she was opposed to league tables.  She was right then and wrong now.

Of course teachers use tests to measure the progress of their pupils and councils purchase a range of tests for their teachers to use.  The control of the test and the use of its results are with the teachers in the school so that they can help the child improve their performance. 

It is the introduction of national standardised tests that creates the difficulties.  Standardised tests mean standardised results which can easily be compiled into league tables using freedom of information legislation.  Those league tables will be crude and unhelpful as they will drive teaching to the test, a focus of resource onto areas that are tested and unhealthy pressure on pupils.  They will disrupt that special relationship between the teacher and the pupil.

This is why the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has warned about the use of testing.

 The Curriculum for Excellence was designed to put power in the hands of teachers so that they could craft a learning environment that is suitable for their class.  It is about trusting teachers to use the skills and experience they have gained instead of imposing a rigid, top down culture and system.

In a desperate attempt to make some kind of mark on education Nicola Sturgeon is making a terrible mistake. 

This was my exchange with the First Minister on testing at FMQs

Willie Rennie: This week the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning had an online question and answer session. Not one person agreed with Angela Constance about the national standardised testing, and the international experts of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development warn that the risk of national testing is “narrowing the curriculum and teaching to the test.”

One of the issues is league tables. The First Minister told me that she was against league tables, but she has told journalists that she will not stop them putting primary schools into league tables. If she does not want them, why is she going ahead and taking all the steps to allow them to happen?

Nicola Sturgeon:

It may have escaped Willie Rennie’s notice, but I do not control the newspapers. Perhaps if I did, things would be very different.

There is something quite reassuring for me here. On the one hand, I have Ruth Davidson telling me that I am not going far enough regarding school reform. On the other hand, I have Willie Rennie telling me that I am going far too far on school reform. That tells me that we are probably in exactly the right place in terms of reforming our schools, how we measure their performance and the attainment gap.

I stand by what I said. I have no interest in crude league tables that offer no meaning to parents; nor do I have any interest in a system that would encourage teaching to the test. It is incumbent on me as First Minister to make sure that children’s progress is being assessed in a way that better informs the judgments teachers make about their performance and that also allows all of us to have a meaningful and evidenced debate in this chamber and across Scotland about whether we are or are not making progress in closing the attainment gap. I think that that is absolutely the right thing to do.

We will continue to discuss the detail of our plans with teachers, local authorities, parents and others, but I am determined—as I said to Ruth Davidson—that we make real progress and I will push forward for that reason.

Willie Rennie:  So league tables are coming and the First Minister has not convinced one single person that she is going to stop them. The OECD says that “Of equal importance is consensus-building among the various stakeholders involved”, but Professor Brian Boyd, who was a member of the curriculum review group, said that it was “a retrograde step”.

Headteacher George Gilchrist said that it is “a definite step backwards”. The Educational Institute of Scotland said that testing would have a “profoundly negative impact”. The Scottish Parent Teacher Council concluded that testing does not raise attainment. Why is the Government’s approach to consensus-building just to tell all those people that they are wrong?

Nicola Sturgeon:

It is not, although I will tell Willie Rennie that he is wrong. We are not introducing high-stakes testing; we are introducing assessment—assessment that is carried out in most local authorities anyway—in a standardised way so that we can use it appropriately. It is assessment that will help to inform teachers’ judgments about the performance of children.

We will continue to work—as we are doing right now with teachers and with others—to finalise how we will make use of that information and how we will publish that information in a way that does not lead to crude league tables. That is the way that we will continue to get on with it.

Willie Rennie has twice mentioned the OECD. We should in the not-too-distant future get the OECD’s latest report on the performance of Scottish education. I look forward to receiving that; I hope that it will be a useful contribution to our on-going work in the area. It is an area that, as I have said repeatedly and will continue to say, I have set as a priority, and I am going to continue treat it in that way.

You can watch the video online at http://www.scottishparliament.tv/category.aspx?id=34.

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