Laura Muncie, a Scot living in Germany, looks at the controversy of standardised national testing in primary 1.
My son has just completed the standard German assessment for 4 year olds.
There were no tears when he left the room, just a smile as he chose four little gifts from a pirates chest:
A gold coin, a mini pencil,a plastic dragon and a fluffy hair elastic. The hair elastic was for me he decided, proudly examining his new treasures – the assessment went smoothly.
But in Scotland there is criticism about the assessing of Primary School children, with non compulsory assessments for Primary 1 proving an especially sensitive spot. Reports of upset children has restarted a national discussion about national testing.
German parents seem more relaxed over assessments (and I have asked plenty how they feel about them )So why are Scottish parents unhappy ?
Where are the Scottish Government going wrong?
One difference may hold a clue – how the assessments are delivered.
My son’s assessment was in 2 parts- a medical check and a development assessment. The development part is similar to the Scottish equivalent and lasted around 30 minutes. It was carried out person to person, in a child friendly room with toys and without me or his Dad.
Having two parts proves doubly useful. Something noted in the medical may appear to play out in the second assessment. A picture is built up at these periodic check ins and the German Government send letters to prompt you to attend.
In Scotland the non medical assessment is delivered via a computerised programme at school. Children navigate the programme using their mouse. The questions increase in difficulty if the child does well. It is also estimated to take around 30 minutes. For the Primary 1 children there are headphones to wear.
I admit I paused after reading the part about the headphones. Anyone who’s tried getting a 4 yr old to wear a hat in winter or goggles in the swimming pool,knows younger children can be fussy about things near their head.
That aside, the German assessment while similar in content, has a clear advantage – a human notices things a computer can’t.
Subtle tells like lack of eye contact,hand flapping, not answering, not seeing a picture when asked to point it out. These provide clues to a professional that a child may have a hearing or eyesight problem, autism, or another barrier to learning that can be overcome.
For dyslexic children reading a computer screen can prove difficult. A coloured screen overlay doesn’t help in every case. If the dyslexia hasn’t yet been identified the screen overlay may not be there, making computer based assessment very difficult.
Then there are the simple disruptions, a young child needing the bathroom or a noise distraction, a human assessor doesn’t time out while waiting for the child’s return.
The Deputy First Minister John Swinney has assured the public the assessments are not tests. Yet a computer in an educational setting feels like a test environment, it’s easy to understand why some parents have decided they are.
Inevitably any policy involving children has potential to be a thorny issue. That is not surprising,child welfare is held close to the heart. Strenuous public outcry when the Tory party intended to stop school lunch programmes resulted in a UK Government U-turn.
The public is especially reactive given child poverty in the UK persists. An estimated 4.1 million children are living below the poverty line,that’s 9 children in a class of 30.
The numbers are better in Scotland, with poverty consistently lower in Scotland compared to the other 3 nations. Scotland’s record on poverty has been better for a considerable time, and across all ages.
But Scotland hasn’t escaped austerity and that has been borne out in increased foodbank usage. Money is getting tighter and some children are going without. If the Brexit financial predictions go as suggested,this is set to worsen when the UK leaves the EU.
Other than addiction, little wears down a family’s ability to cope faster than a shortage of money. Even when parents are doing all they can, children are affected and hungry children struggle to concentrate.
I volunteered as a primary school classroom helper in Scotland a few years ago, there is no question in my mind that Scotland’s teachers are excellent. They care about the wellbeing of students, are required to be degree educated,and have teacher training on top. Not every country requires that.
Record numbers of Scottish students are reaching university level. Clearly the Scottish educational system is delivering.
But teachers can’t meet the need of every struggling child and gradual change is harder to detect if you see a child often.
So how do parents in Germany feel about the state requiring them to present their child for assessment ?
A relaxed shrug, a whisper of a smile at my question suggests it is not something German parents find vexing.
‘ I think it’s good the Government are checking. It’s also a chance for me to hear that things are going fine’ said one.
Another parent insightfully commented ‘ I might not see the wood for the trees.Having someone who doesn’t know anything about us assessing my child,means they see what I can’t. Perhaps even what I don’t want to see’.
If Germans appear relaxed about early age assessments, it might be because this is a country accustomed to state involvement in many areas of daily life.
The less favourable reaction in Scotland shows, even if you know the ‘why’ of doing something and plan the ‘when’, the how’ is vital.
Murmuring disapproval will be disappointing to a Government who have placed children and young people front and centre. From mentoring young people,to lowering the voting age, to the Baby Box, the Scottish Government have championed young people.
Maybe a change of delivery would still give data about the attainment gap, soften critics and bring parents back on board. A treat from a Pirates Chest afterwards wouldn’t do any harm either.