Standardised tests won’t fix our attainment gap

RF HeadshotRobert Foster, a Labour Party activist from Irvine, says educational inequality won’t be solved by standardised tests, but by tackling the underlying problems in our schools, and by taking on wealth inequality across Scotland.


I have now watched, read and re-read what the First Minister had to say yesterday morning. She set out her plan for tackling the attainment gap in our schools, as part of her speech outlining the SNP programme for government for the next year, and I still can’t believe it.

The First Minister explained how she was going to improve attainment by introducing standardised national examinations for primary 1, 3 and 7 pupils and pupils in S3, as some sort of miracle fix to our failing education system that’s been letting pupils down for years.

My son started primary school a few short weeks ago, to the usual fanfare of picture taking and tie sorting all the way to the front door of his school. He was happy and relaxed as he took his seat at his desk, and there wasn’t a tear in sight as he waved goodbye to his mum and I. That was not the case for all the kids in his class.

It was obvious that some of the kids’ parents weren’t able to make it that morning. That may have been due to them being unable to get time off work; maybe it was due to illness; or maybe it was because they aren’t in their child’s life at the moment. I don’t know, but it definitely made me think about the possible reasons why it was grannies and aunties stepping up to accompany them on the exciting day they became “big school boys and girls”.

My son’s school is in an area classed as being in the poorest 20% in the country, according to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation. So he and his classmates already have the odds stacked against them. When it comes to exiting the school system and trying to get a decent job, or a place at university or college, our postcodes and circumstances are a barrier.

All the kids looked great that day in their new wee uniforms, and not a single one of them was aware of the uphill struggle that they or their peers from across the country will face in years to come – unless we start now to talk about what needs done to make sure every pupil has the same chance to achieve, and reach their full potential.

Pupils in our poorest areas are not failing to achieve because there are too few examinations. They are not failing to achieve because their teacher, who works with them five days a week, suddenly can’t recognise who is struggling and who is not and now needs a spreadsheet to tell them. They are not achieving, and they are not reaching their full potential within our education system, because of wealth inequality.

The Scottish Government is aware that there is plenty of evidence that shows people from the poorest areas in Scotland probably won’t get a university degree – or even get in the front door of a university in the first place – and they will have far more health problems and shorter life expectancy.

Let’s put that really bluntly. My son and I, the kids in his class, and their parents, are more likely to be dead sooner than those living in the most affluent areas of the country. Our circumstances mean we just won’t live as long. Let that sink in.

That’s the real life impact of wealth inequality, and a few extra maths lessons aren’t the solution to those problems.

Like all parents, I want my son to have every chance available to him. I want him to leave school not only with good grades, but as a confident individual who cares about those around him and who wants to make a difference to the lives of others. This won’t happen for him and all of his classmates unless the Scottish Government start to tackle the underlying problems in our schools:

  • class sizes need to be reduced;
  • cuts to provision for pupils with additional support needs have to be reversed;
  • the teacher/pupil ratio must be improved.

But most of all, inequality must be tackled head on. It’s hard to learn how to give your children the best start you possibly can when your roof is caving in, when you’re worried where the next pound for a loaf is coming from or when you’re too ill to be the parent you want to be.

Every parent in Scotland should have the opportunity to provide a safe home for their child through a strong social housing programme. Every parent in Scotland should be paid a fair wage to enable them to put healthy food into their child’s stomach. And every parent in Scotland should know that regardless of what school their child goes to they will have the same chance of success as every other child in the country.

Until we start to address the real issues of educational inequality we’re all just kidding ourselves on.

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6 thoughts on “Standardised tests won’t fix our attainment gap

  1. Yes, class sizes should be reduced. Yes, cuts to education should be reversed. However, neither of these measures is incompatible with some form of “standardised examinations”.

    Yes income inequality is a huge driver for the problems in our schools, but educational inequality ensures poverty is handed down from generation to generation. Income inequality and educational inequality are linked and that link must be broken – it is a chicken and egg situation.

    Without testing, how can we measure the progress schools are making with our kids? How can we target any additional funding if we don’t know where the problems are?

    Nonetheless, national testing does come with 3 questions:
    1. Will the resultant league tables lead to ghetto schools? This is a real risk.
    2. Will teachers teach to the test? Some will!
    3. What extra resources schools get if they have have poor test results? Not much I bet!

  2. I know exactly how to fix the attainment gap.

    Stop pretending there is one and try and find something genuine to complain about.

  3. I hope Labour MSPs will support the idea of standardised testing as part of a wider effort to raise standards in Scotland’s schools.

    Part of the issue is what is being measured and what standards children are expected to reach by certain ages. Will children be assessed on a few narrow academic points or ‘in the round’ CfE style?

    Children are already tested in p1 and throughout school but the measurements are not the same across local authorities, they’re not published and there’s no way of seeing whether schools are adding value. As well as potentially excellent schools getting written off because their children are starting from so far behind, it’s also hard to see which schools are coasting along, adding very little value to their affluent catchment intake.

    There’s some interesting points in this presentation – if you can get past the crass comments about the British Empire and the fact that US children already start school at 6.

  4. Lucky the Scottish government isn’t planning standardised tests, then! The question of how to close, or even eliminate, the educational attainment gap between rich and poor should not centre around testing and assessment but on broader education strategies. As Professor Lindsay Paterson “The attainment of Scottish pupils compared to other developed counties has indeed stabilised under the present Scottish government, after a fall in its relative position between the early part of the last decade and about the middle of the last decade” so Sturgeon and the SNP have done an excellent job so far but closing the attainment gap has proved a substantial challenge internationally where it has been specifically addressed. In a nation faced with massive austerity cuts as ours does, the task will be even greater!

  5. Robert,interesting article here is a wee bit of feedback.

    Okay Scottish Labour section lets just send kids to school and don’t bother implementing some sort of measuring and improving system to ensure standards and progress are raised to help kids to learn, and also put in place good support systems to help those who are falling behind.

    I am very happy that the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has got a grip on education and has set out her stall for now and the future 10 years which is enough time for Scottish Labour section to at least come up with some decent ideas, meantime this is very impressive policy from a progressive SNP government who are keeping up the good work.

  6. Well I have read and reread your article and I also cannot believe it, the very idea that our government will actually put the education of the children of Scotland ahead of their politics must be very hard for the labour mindset to understand.

    The only thing your article did not mention was SNP-BAD.

    I have a son in his final year in primary school, a small 100 pupil school in a wee toon in Moray and twice in the last five years they have been in the TOP THREE in Scotland including last year. And from a council thats broke and a toon that apart from a couple of distillerys has nae real industry and nae real money, that is a massive achievement.

    Like most parents in Scotland I have confidence in our SNP government to do their best to ensure my son’s education is excellent. And their 10 year plan more than covers that.

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