Education: 'Why not get started, and just try it and see?': The Scottish system is being hailed as a model. Kay Smith sees how it is working in one school

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The Independent Online
IT TOOK less than half an hour for a small group of 11-year-olds at Juniper Green Primary School in Edinburgh to work their way through one of the maths papers in the revised national tests made available this year in Scottish schools.

The professionally printed test booklets, with a cartoon of a scientist sitting at an electronic control desk, were laid out on the table. Alison Alexander, the class teacher, read out the title, 'Space Two (Mission Control)', and the 11 questions inside. The pupils, pencils in hand, were ready to go.

One question asked: 'When an astronaut walks on the moon he weighs one-sixth of his weight. What would be the weight on the moon of an astronaut who was 120kg on earth?' The pupils quickly assessed that they were simply being told to divide 120 by 6.

Other questions - all based on the space theme, and often illustrated with lively line drawings - covered number work as well as time, shape and symmetry. Each one could be answered by writing on a neat line, or by ticking a box.

The test is one of four the pupils will sit in maths this summer. They are all based on topics like those that the pupils are used to working on in class. They are also based on the learning targets laid out in the Scottish national guidelines on maths.

'That was easy,' said Chris, one of the pupils. 'Too easy for a national test,' elaborated David. He had heard about these tests before 'on the news', he said.

The conflict between teachers' unions and the Government in England and Wales will have recently brought the mention of national testing on to the television screen in David's home. But the reality in Scotland is different. High-profile confrontation vanished when the original system of testing (introduced in 1990) was abandoned last year.

That system dictated that all primary pupils at class four and class seven level had to be tested en masse. Now, individual teachers can choose when their pupils sit maths and languages tests as they reach one of five different levels of attainment during the ages of 5 to 14. The teachers' decision will be based 'not on the cleverness of the child but on how much work they have covered', said Carolyn Bennett, headteacher of Juniper Green Primary School.

Juniper Green is at the forefront in Scotland in the use of the new tests. It was also one of a minority of schools that ran the original tests. It now continues to follow its own nose rather than pay much heed to the current line from the Educational Institute of Scotland - the Scottish teachers' union - to hold back until 'local agreements' and resources and staffing are finalised with education authorities.

The school sits on a hill with magnificent views across the city and over the attractive private housing around. Staff duck questions about unions and political alignment. Their approach is a mixture of pragmatism and caution. John Connell, the deputy head, said: 'The writing is on the wall. We have all basically reached agreement on the new regime. So why not get started, and just try it and see.'

In order to give the staff time to tune into what will soon become an ever rolling programme of testing, the school management has decided that during the summer term only primary classes six and seven will be tested in one subject - maths. Most are expected to pass at the top two levels of a range labelled upwards from A to E. The system of labelling is in reverse order to the one older people are used to. 'It foxes a number of parents,' commented Mrs Bennett. 'I've had one at a parents' night who was fraught because her son got an E'

Parents receive the test results of their own children confidentially, while school boards are given the percentages of pupils within each year group who sit and pass the tests at the various levels. According to Hugh Calquhoun, the school board chairman, parents have accepted the tests as one agreed fact of life on a busy agenda. 'There is a certain amount of apathy about them now. We trust the school to do their best for the children. Devolved school management and the new school reports are taking up all our time at board meetings now.'

There are, however, a few dissenting voices. Elizabeth McGardle was almost on the point of withdrawing her daughter from last year's round of tests. Now she feels they simply create unnecessary stress on the teachers. 'They know their pupils really well already. They are testing them all the time anyway.' Alan Utterson, another parent, dismisses them as 'an excuse for national league tables, in spite of the fact they are not supposed to be'.

Ms Alexander said the tests had one advantage: 'They are good, and they are ready made. For years I've had to scrabble away at nights making up my own tests.'

She will be constantly monitoring her pupils to decide when they have completed the work in each level and are therefore ready to sit a test. Usually this would be done with small groups of pupils, but meanwhile the rest of the class will have to be kept occupied.

But that is all in a day's work, she said. 'We're used to working this way,' she said. But what is the value of national tests? She paused: 'Well, they just confirm what we know about our pupils anyway.'

(Photograph omitted)