The Education Secretary has poured cold water over the idea of reinstating a “respected” literacy and numeracy survey, sparking claims ministers would rather “hide their own failings” than achieve improvement for school pupils.
However, Shirley-Anne Somerville also told MSPs the Scottish Government would “explore options” for a sample-based evaluation approach that assesses learner progress against the fundamental goals of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE).
Her remarks come after Douglas Hutchison, Glasgow Council’s new executive director of education, said he would “personally” like to go back to the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN). This was an annual sample of P4, P7 and S2 learners that was discontinued in 2017 as part of the shift to Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSAs) and the gathering of Achievement of CfE Levels (ACEL) data.
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Mr Hutchison described the SNSA as a “good” diagnostic tool that supports teacher judgement of pupil progress. But he also said its usefulness for monitoring the wider education system was limited.
“At the moment, [with] SNSA, there’s nothing published nationally,” he told The Herald. “The deal is that this is for schools to use as a diagnostic tool.
“For me it should be called the Scottish National Diagnostic Assessment. But it’s for individual classes and individual teachers as a diagnostic tool, and I don’t know what it gives us at system level.
“We need some measure of how well the system is progressing. So, I would like some kind of survey.
“We’re doing [the Programme for International Student Assessment] this year. We take part in an international survey – why would we not have a national [survey] on an annual basis?”
Asked for her response to Mr Hutchison’s remarks while taking education-related questions at Holyrood, Ms Somerville said: “We remain committed to teacher professional judgement as the means of assessing progress in the broad general education through the annual Achievement of Curriculum for Excellence Levels data.
“National standardised assessments will continue to have a role to play in supporting these. As we set out in our response to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report last year, we will also explore options for a sample-based survey approach assessing progress against the four CfE capacities.”
Her remarks drew a critical reaction from the questioner, Scottish Conservative MSP Sandesh Gulhane, who asked: “Why is it so difficult for the Cabinet Secretary to reinstate this well-regarded survey?
“Any government serious about restoring educational standards would recognise that collecting and tracking the right kind of data is essential to an evidence-based approach to education.
“Does the Cabinet Secretary accept that many parents and teachers will simply draw the conclusion that this SNP government would rather hide their own failings than make things better for our young people?”
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His criticisms were firmly rejected by Ms Somerville. She said: “The reason that there have been changes is because a national survey does provide us with greater information to ensure that we know what’s happening within schools and within local authorities.
“The SSLN did not provide data about performance at school or local authority level. So, when the data did show a decline in literacy and numeracy between 2014 and 2015, it was decided as part of the National Improvement Framework work to move to a census-based approach to allow us to actually monitor progress in literacy and numeracy to provide support where it was required at a school and a local authority level.
“That simply was not possible when you have a survey such as the SSLN was. I would also point out, actually, that in the OECD report in 2015, they also said that [the] sample approach of the SSLN did not give national agencies enough evidence.”
The OECD report that was published last year highlighted major flaws in the implementation of CfE. These include a failure to align the broad general education – which is delivered between the ages of three and 15 – with the senior phase in S4-6.
The analysis – particularly its reference to “19th century” assessment practices – has resulted in plans to replace the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and remove inspections from standards body Education Scotland.