Scottish pupils to sit standardised school tests from the age of five despite warnings of 'league table culture'

Nicola Sturgeon announces new measure to be piloted by councils this year before being rolled out nationally in 2017

Scottish schoolchildren will sit standardised national literacy and numeracy tests from the age of five under plans unveiled by Nicola Sturgeon today – despite warnings that the measure will herald the return of a “league table culture” and lead to increased anxiety for pupils and parents.

The new tests in reading, writing and numeracy will be taken by children in primaries one, four and seven as well as in the third year of secondary school. They will be piloted by selected local councils this year before being rolled out nationally in 2017.

Launching the policy during a speech in Glasgow, the First Minister said the return of standardised testing – which was scrapped in Scotland in 2003 by the then Labour-Lib Dem coalition government – was the only way to close the so-called “attainment gap” between pupils from the wealthiest and poorest backgrounds. 

The SNP have been criticised for failing to close the gap during their time in power, while other figures have also shown worrying falls in literacy and numeracy standards in Scottish schools since the party took control at Holyrood. Ms Sturgeon said she wanted to be able to demonstrate improvements in all of these areas “by the end of the next parliament”.

“Nobody can be comfortable living in a country where different levels of wealth create such a significant gap in the attainment levels – and therefore the life chances – of so many children. That’s why the Scottish Government is taking concerted action now,” she told the International Congress on School Effectiveness and Improvement.

“We can only drive rapid and significant improvement if we can understand whether what we are doing is working,” she continued. “The information [from the tests] will allow us over the next few years to set clear, specific and meaningful milestones on the road to closing the attainment gap.”

She added that while nearly all of Scotland’s 32 local authority areas currently conduct some form of standardised assessment to monitor children’s progress, the tests were not consistent, leaving ministers effectively in the dark about school performance.

The Scottish Government insisted that teachers’ judgements about pupil ability would be given more weight than the test results when the national data was collected – but critics warned there would be nothing to stop people using the results to compile unofficial league tables of school performance. 

The Educational Institute of Scotland, the country’s largest union for teachers and lecturers, said it remained “unconvinced” about the need for standardised tests. “We should remember that the old style National Tests were initially introduced to confirm teacher judgement but misuse of the test data led to a different practice altogether,” said the union’s general secretary Larry Flanagan. “The EIS will not allow that to happen again as the students failed by that type of system are those most in need.”

Opposition parties also accused the SNP of having the wrong priorities, highlighting the need to cut class sizes and reduce teachers’ workloads. “Standardised testing is recognised by many experts as causing anxiety for pupils and staff, and it’s simply not credible for ministers to hope that the data won’t result in the kind of league table culture that causes stress for families,” said Isla O’Reilly, education spokesperson for the Scottish Greens.

The test results data will be published annually from 2017, while parents will also be able to access information about their own child’s progress so they can establish whether they need further support at home or in school.