Education: Testing without tears or tables: The Scottish system is being hailed as a model. Donald MacLeod says it is too early to tell

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The Independent Online
WHAT A pity it was, Astrid Ritchie pointedly told the Conservative conference in Edinburgh last week, that the party in England and the Government had not paused 'in the current fracas and chaos' over national testing to ask how peace had been achieved in Scotland. 'We have an unsung success story,' said Mrs Ritchie, who chairs the Scottish Conservatives' education policy group.

Scotland's system of testing - without tears or league tables - is being cited as a model by teachers and parents in England and Wales, whose opposition to tests for seven- and 14-year-olds has set back the Government's programme this year.

Now, it seems, political friends as well as opponents are telling John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, to listen and learn from the Scottish experience. But Mr Patten will not like what he hears. And if testing in Scotland is a success story, it is taking time to prove itself.

True, there is classroom peace north of the border. After the boycott by parents that derailed national testing in Scotland three years ago, the political heat has been taken out of testing. Ministers and the Scottish Office education department say the compromise they reached with education authorities and the teachers after that debacle is now being put into effect.

But in some Scottish regions few schools are setting tests this year because the authorities and teachers have yet to agree on their implementation. The Scottish system would also frustrate several of Mr Patten's broader 'choice and diversity' objectives, such as the use of test results as a yardstick by which to judge schools.

For the second year running, more than 1.5 million test units have been sent out to primary schools by the Scottish Examination Board. However, no picture has yet emerged as to how much testing is going on in Scottish schools. The Scottish Office is awaiting a report from the education authorities on the first year of operation. A spokesman said: 'Our impression is that apart from a few minor instances it is going ahead as advised.' In reality, however, teachers are holding back, saying: 'We're in favour, but . . .'

Children are to be tested individually, as and when their teacher decides that they are ready to move from one level to another of the Scottish curriculum (see below). There is therefore no possibility of constructing league tables of test results, as Mr Patten wants to do in England and Wales, nor of comparing schools. The examination board will monitor a sample of marked tests but will not collect results centrally. The board states specifically: 'Test results should not be used to place individual pupils in rank order in their class, to select pupils for particular schools, or to place schools in any sort of rank order.' That feature will no doubt appeal to many parents in England and Wales, most of whom, according to an Independent poll last week, seem to disapprove of national curriculum test league tables.

The Scottish Office itself plays down the significance of the tests in its information to parents. A leaflet says that the tests - in reading, writing and mathematics only - are one part of the whole assessment process to show how each child is progressing against nationally agreed attainment targets. 'It is expected that in most cases the test results will confirm the teacher's own judgement about which level has been achieved,' the examination board says.

The tests are not voluntary. The board says: 'Teachers will decide when, but not whether, pupils are to be tested.' But, at least in the initial stages of the scheme, it is virtually impossible to check whether teachers are carrying out testing as the Government intends, or simply procrastinating. They, after all, decide when each child is ready. Parents, who worked closely with teachers to defeat the national testing introduced in 1989, have not been clamouring for tests. Testing in secondary schools has been postponed until next year.

Nor is testing the simple national programme that ministers envisaged. Each of the 12 regional and island education authorities is negotiating testing arrangements for its schools. Some authorities, such as Borders or Western Isles, have been keen to test, but Tayside has yet to agree and is insisting that parents should be told that they have the right to withdraw their children from tests.

James Douglas-Hamilton, the Scottish education minister, has said he believes that this is against the spirit of the guidelines and he will ensure that testing takes place. But how? With no statutory powers or regulations at his disposal, he has had to rely on persuasion. Whether further opposition will provoke Scottish ministers into introducing regulations remains to be seen.