Assessment – should education be about trust or control?


Sue Palmer

CapturealevelI’ve spent the day listening to coverage of the secondary exam fiasco in England.  And feeling extremely proud of the Scottish government.  Thank goodness they immediately recognised the inanity of prioritising a statistically-driven ‘system’ over the needs of young human beings who are already traumatised by five months of COVID-19 culture change.

How could any country that truly believes in social justice support a system which arbitrarily downgrades the efforts of students from schools in disadvantaged areas while upgrading the results of the private sector? Yet, at time of writing, the Westminster government is doing just that.

Our government’s refusal to do so is further evidence that Scotland – in good old Scottish fashion – has colonised the educational high ground.

Has Scotland started looking north?

I say ‘further evidence’ because the last Upstart blog described the massive difference between Scotland’s current approach to early childhood care and education (ECEC) and the dreadful state of affairs down south. A huge gulf is opening between the two countries’ approach to early years education … and I’m so grateful to be on the Scottish side!

'I'm visiting my cousin in Sweden. He gets to learn through PLAY in his kindergarten.'

‘I’m visiting my cousin in Sweden. He gets to learn through PLAY in his kindergarten.’

Ever since Upstart began campaigning for a kindergarten stage, back in 2015, we’ve described it as based on ‘the Nordic model’ because play-based pedagogy in the early years – especially outdoor play in natural surroundings – is increasingly recognised as the best way to promote lifelong learning and well-being.

In many ways, Scotland has far more in common with the Nordic countries than with England. So, rather than pursuing an Anglicised ‘schoolification’ of early childhood, we believe that relationship-centred, play-based, outdoors ECEC is an excellent way to address many of Scotland’s ingrained educational problems (see Upstart’s FAQs and Play Not Tests document), including the poverty-related attainment gap.

Not only do Nordic countries have far higher levels of childhood well-being than the UK, they also have a far less worrying gap between rich and poor. There are, of course, many reasons for these differences but I shall always treasure the words of a Finnish government minister in 2004:

‘It was not always like this,’ he said, ‘but thirty years ago we thought: “How do we get a good society?” And we said: “We must look after our little children.”

Trust versus control

g2Last week, I was asked (for an article in the National) what action I’d suggest to reduce the poverty-related attainment gap in Scotland.  I replied that, since the gap was evident by the age of three, we should provide targeted support for disadvantaged parents before and during the first three years of their children’s lives. And, since research shows that early support must be maintained, we should also update our universal services by introducing a relationship-centred, play-based kindergarten stage for children between the ages of three and seven.

Another interviewee for this National piece was Dr Suzanne Zeedyk.  I loved her answer to the question: ‘Addressing inequality in Scotland begins with creating trust. It sounds simple but it isn’t. Inequality drives distrust and division. That leaves people legitimately feeling that they are not heard and that they don’t matter, which stokes anxiety, anger and suspicion.’

Capture2countrieIn 2018, after my most recent visit to Finland, I wrote an Upstart blog entitled ‘A Tale of Two Systems’. It argued that Finnish politicians (and therefore the Finnish people) have chosen to trust teachers. Teachers therefore feel free to trust the children in their care to learn and prosper.

If you trust little children to ‘learn with joy’ (as prescribed by the – very slim – Finnish preschool guidance), that trust percolates upwards and throughout society.  Why? Because it works. And how do people know it works? They look around and see it working. It’s only we non-Nordics who need international surveys for proof.

Sadly, after twenty-five years of the UK’s ‘measurement and accountability’ culture, Scottish politicians and civil servants are obsessed with controlling what happens in schools. Central government’s paranoid craving for ‘results’ percolates down to local government. The LAs pass it on to schools, where senior managers pass it on to teachers, and teachers pass it on to the children and young people in their classes.

Each stage in this terrible spiral of data-addiction is characterised by the need for control. And, perhaps most sadly of all, it is also communicated to the parents of tiny children, who come to believe that the sooner their offspring climb on to the treadmill, the more ‘successful’ they will be.

The tests don’t work

The UK’s obsession with regular standardised assessment now starts at age four or five, so it haunts the whole of children’s educational lives (while in Finland there’s a single ‘leaving exam’ at the end of secondary schooling). Quite apart from the damage this educational surveillance culture does to the younger generation’s mental health, the data-driven quest for ‘continual improvement’ leads to a plethora of magic-bullet recipes for scoring well in assessments (which are generally only magical in the extent to which they line the pockets of publishers and multinational corporations).

I was amused to see the main objection to constant standardised assessment turn up on Twitter this week, as expressed by a frustrated educationist back in 1898:




Yep, once regular standardised assessment is established, it becomes the driving force behind education – and schools become ‘exam factories‘.

But now the COVID crisis has shown what statisticians actually do with the information schools diligently produce, and the way it further disadvantages the disadvantaged, there really is no excuse for laying such store by this system.

I’m praying John Swinney’s U-turn last week signals a change in the ethos of Scottish education. Curriculum for Excellence is a wonderful vision but hasn’t yet been realised. Perhaps the COVID assessment crisis will help open political eyes and henceforth the emphasis in Scottish education will be on supporting every student to reach their full potential – rather than teaching them to jump through hoops for bureaucrats.

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