All is not well with education in Scotland. We’re sliding down the international literacy and numeracy charts. Our ‘poverty-related attainment gap’ is widening. What to do?
In 2015, the First Minister took decisive action. ‘Judge me by my performance on education,’ she said and – to provide data on which to base that judgement – introduced Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSA) in literacy and numeracy at P1, P4, P7 and S3.
Four years later, the SNSAs are the focus of two national reviews. The first, by the Parliamentary Education Committee, began this month. The second – an ‘Independent Review’ of the particularly controversial P1 assessment – is due to report in May. However, at the time of writing no one seems willing (or perhaps ‘independent’ enough) to chair it.
Look for the silver lining
As a former primary heidie and a literacy specialist for forty years, I’m very cheered by these developments. Indeed, they suggest to me that the Scottish education system is in a much healthier state than those of other western nations (England, Australia, USA) where national testing regimes hold sway. Scotland has always been suspicious of national standardised assessment before the age of 16. We inadvertently slipped into doing it during the dark days of the 5-14 Curriculum but we soon recanted and devised a Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) which has been internationally lauded as a model of educational guidance.
Sadly, the introduction of CfEwas bungled and its praiseworthy principles haven’t yet been translated into world-beating practice. But perhaps the two SNSA reviews provide an opportunity to get it back on track, not least because they’re focusing public attention on how the educational process begins.
Themedia focus kicked off last summer, with stories about five-year-old children reduced to tears and an obscure question about a humming bird’s beak (media commentators couldn’t decide whether to treat these as tragedy or farce). Then came a concerted campaign against the P1 SNSA supported by the EIS, Children in Scotland, a parent-teacher organisation (Connect) and other groups concerned with children’s ‘right to play’. The slogan ‘Play Not Tests 4 P1’ began to appear, scrawled in chalk beside various Scottish landmarks.
The Scottish Government – bewildered by this unexpectedly vocal resistance movement – tried to suppress it. But they failed to check their references, leading to more media coverage when they were accused of misleading head teachers on parents’ right to opt children out of the P1 tests.
By this time, the opposition parties had scented blood. They swotted up on early childhood education and tabled a motion in the Scottish Parliament to drop the P1 tests. It was passed by 63 votes to 61 but the government (which, in common with most media commentators, hadn’t had time to swot up) decided to ignore the vote, thus firmly establishing the P1 SNSA as a political hot potato.
Hence, the two SNSA reviews. On the first day of the Education Committee review another media furorebroke out when the Scottish Government was revealed (presumably due to more unchecked references) to be misrepresenting the views of two international educational gurus about standardised assessment of five-year-olds.
This bizarre, unexpected sequence of events means that – for the first time ever – early childhood pedagogy has hit the headlines. Although political commentators are still as bewildered as the government about what ‘play-based learning’ at P1 actually involves, they’ve at least brought one of CfE’soutstanding problems to public attention. Even better, they’ve raised the possibility that Scotland might finally unravel a knotty educational problem with implications for the whole of the English-speaking world.
A historical-cultural knot
The problem began in the 1860s, when compulsory state-funded education began and Britain decreed an earlier school starting age than other countries setting up schooling systems. Victorian politicians considered it ‘of great utility’ to enrol the children of the poor in school as young as possible – not only would this free their mothers to return to work, but the sooner schooling started, the sooner it would end and the children could start work too.
Scotland has since been one of only 12 per cent of nations worldwide (all bar one ex-members of the British Empire) where children are expected to crack on with the three Rs before the age of six.
Once out of sight in school, little children were out of the British public mind until the 1970s, when increasing adult illiteracy sparked debate about the effectiveness of primary schooling. A bitter argument broke out among literacy specialists about the best way to teach reading and writing – ‘traditionally’ (focusing on phonics) or ‘progressively’ (focusing on meaning and motivation).
In England, thanks to a political takeover of education, traditional methods won the day and there’s since been a draconian system of tests and targets to ensure training in phonic ‘sound-symbol relationships’ is rigorously enforced. In Scotland, the educational establishment struggled to keep a sensible balance, currently enshrined in CfE.
Nevertheless many Scottish educationalists are still unsure which side to take in the great P1 SNSA debate. Like the First Minister and most of the general public, they’re not sure what all the fuss is about. After all, if you want to track children’s progress in the three Rs, it makes sense to start in their first year of schooling and it’s now a national 150-year-old habit to assume that’s the year children turn five.
But what if we’re wrong to start teaching literacy skills so early? There was no educational justification for the Victorians’ political decision. There is, however, a growing body of international evidence to suggest it was a thoroughly bad one. So might the P1 SNSA controversy help Scotland untangle the historical-cultural knot that focuses primary education on howbest to teach literacy, while ignoring the question of when?
Play-based pedagogy …
In countries with far better educational records than the UK – including China, Singapore, Canada and (of course) Finland – there’s a tradition of play-based pedagogy until children are six or seven years old. The approach is based on well-established educational principles, underpinned by the science of child development.
The First Minister will be pleased to know that play-based pedagogy doesn’t mean children who show an early interest in the three Rs are ‘held back’; simply that literacy and numeracy skills aren’t explicitly taughtuntil all children have reached an appropriate developmental stage. Until then, the focus is on supporting their learning – in the way biology has successfully equipped young children to learn – through play.
There’s no place for standardised assessment of literacy and numeracy skills in a developmentally-based pedagogical system because, until the age of around seven, early child development is so variable that it can’t be standardised. As one of the academics recently ‘misrepresented’ by the Scottish government put it: ‘The unreliability of the assessments, combined with the unreliability of five-year-olds, means these assessments are almost completely useless as guides to the achievement and needs of five-year-olds.’
Politicians in the rest of the world are now recognising the scientific basis behind play-based pedagogy during early childhood. That’s why China recently banned testing in its kindergartens (some of which had fallen under the English-speaking spell) and Singapore, famed for its rigorous national assessment regime, has from 2019 stopped standardised testing of children under the age of eight.
Scotland was actually ahead of the game in this respect. CfE recommended play-based pedagogy in P1 as part of its ‘Early Level’ for three- to six-year-olds. Unfortunately, there was nowhere near enough teacher training to accompany CfE and – since most primary teachers were as clueless as the rest of the population about the developmental significance of play – it didn’t catch on. Fortunately, there were enough teachers and early years specialists who did see the point and many joined the Upstart Scotland campaign, which aims to introduce a play-based kindergarten stage for Scottish children.
… and why does it matter so much?
Upstart Scotland’s interest is not merely educational: indeed most Upstart supporters don’t come from an educational background. They’re from social services, health, psychology, children’s rights, the arts, playwork, criminal justice, environmental sustainability and many other professional fields. The unifying factor is shared concern about the changing nature of children’s play and its potential effects on the long-term health and well-being of the nation.
I wrote about this here in an article last year called The Silence of the Weans. There’s growing scientific evidence that active, social, outdoor play is a biological necessity in early childhood and its decline has serious implications for the physical and mental health of the next generation. I suspect that the introduction of a Nordic-style kindergarten stage is the only way currently available of connecting all Scotland’s children with their evolutionary heritage. And, who knows, it might also help get Curriculum for Excellence back on track.
Images courtesy of Sue Palmer/Upstart