Election Briefings from Moray House

I’ve been working with colleagues on this series of Briefings to inform the forthcoming Scottish election debates. Check them out here:


… and here’s an example focusing on education 15-18, the ‘senior phase’ …




What has the EU ever done for us….

I am copying here a Facebook post from Donnachadh McCarthy to ensure gets maximum exposure.

In the week when the UK’s five extremist right-wing media billionaires won their battle to waste our time, money and political capital on a EU referendum, I thought it a good time to post the great letter by Simon Sweeney in the Guardian, which he kindly allowed me to reproduce in my book, “The Prostitute State – How Britain’s Democracy has Been Bought”:

“What did the EU ever do for us?
Not much, apart from: providing 57% of our trade;
structural funding to areas hit by industrial decline;
clean beaches and rivers;
cleaner air;
lead free petrol;
restrictions on landfill dumping;
a recycling culture;
cheaper mobile charges;
cheaper air travel;
improved consumer protection and food labelling;
a ban on growth hormones and other harmful food additives;
better product safety;
single market competition bringing quality improvements and better industrial performance;
break up of monopolies;
Europe-wide patent and copyright protection;
no paperwork or customs for exports throughout the single market;
price transparency and removal of commission on currency exchanges across the eurozone;
freedom to travel, live and work across Europe;
funded opportunities for young people to undertake study or work placements abroad;
access to European health services;
labour protection and enhanced social welfare;
smoke-free workplaces;
equal pay legislation;
holiday entitlement;
the right not to work more than a 48-hour week without overtime;
strongest wildlife protection in the world;
improved animal welfare in food production;
EU-funded research and industrial collaboration;
EU representation in international forums;
bloc EEA negotiation at the WTO;
EU diplomatic efforts to uphold the nuclear non-proliferation treaty;
European arrest warrant;
cross border policing to combat human trafficking, arms and drug smuggling; counter terrorism intelligence;
European civil and military co-operation in post-conflict zones in Europe and Africa;
support for democracy and human rights across Europe and beyond;
investment across Europe contributing to better living standards and educational, social and cultural capital.
All of this is nothing compared with its greatest achievements: the EU has for 60 years been the foundation of peace between European neighbours after centuries of bloodshed.
It furthermore assisted the extraordinary political, social and economic transformation of 13 former dictatorships, now EU members, since 1980.
Now the union faces major challenges brought on by neoliberal economic globalisation, and worsened by its own systemic weaknesses. It is taking measures to overcome these. We in the UK should reflect on whether our net contribution of £7bn out of total government expenditure of £695bn is good value. We must play a full part in enabling the union to be a force for good in a multi-polar global future.

Simon Sweeney,

Lecturer in international political economy, University of York”

Please share – the anti-EU campaign will have the full force of Murdoch’s and the other 4 extremist right-wing media billionaires papers whose agenda is to destroy all our human rights.

As I wrote in The Prostitute State, over 80% of UK papers are owned by five extremist right wing media billionaires: Rupert Murdoch, (Sun/Times), Barclay Brothers (Telegraph), Richard Desmond (Express) and Lord Rothermere (Daily Mail).

Murdoch is Australian living in New York, Rothermere lives in France, the Barclay Brothers in the tax havens of Monaco and Guernsey. All of them use tax haven entities to avoid UK taxes.

So key question is in light of the above list, why have these billionaires for decades tried to destroy the EU’s democratic institutions?

Together we can take him/them on and beat him/them.

peace love respect
Donnachadh McCarthy


Costa Short Story Award

What a fabulous surprise.. not only shortlisted but this year’s winner. You can watch a short video of the presentation event here:

and read or listen to the winning story – ‘Rogey’ – here

Now I have to ease myself out of education and start taking my creative writing seriously!

Watch this space!!

The National Improvement Framework for Scottish Education

See also blog on national testing.

This is my abbreviated response to the Scottish Government’s consultation on the proposed National Framework for Scottish Education. Responses are welcome either here as comments or to my e.mail at daniel.murphy@ed.ac.uk.


I wholeheartedly endorse the vision and commend the political commitment to realising it in practice. Setting out a clear vision and values for Scottish education is helpful. However, the document (and consequently the Framework) contains a number of conceptual confusions. Many of these conceptual confusions arise from the way in which the term ‘equality’ is used in the document, and in more general public discourse. As a result, the practical steps proposed are not well targeted. The Moray House School of Education, the EIS and others have made a number of valuable responses which contribute helpfully to the debate in terms of practice. As a result, I will limit this response to the foundational issue of conceptual clarity and one or two recommendations. I hope this response is helpful to you and would be happy to be involved in any further consultation / discussion on these matters.

The concept of equality:

  • different ‘equalities’: at times in the document, equality is used to mean equality of opportunity and at other times to mean equality of outcome. These are very different types of equality. Other aspects of educational equality are equality of value and equality of input. Each of these aspects is important and is explored briefly in turn below.
  • equality of opportunity: this is generally considered to be the weakest form of equality, if what it means is equality in the opportunities offered, even though different individuals will have different levels of capacity to take up the opportunities. Delivering even this weak form of equality would demand greater equality of input than is currently the case (see below).
  • equality of outcomes: if this very strong form of equality is the desired ambition, the government needs to be clear which of the many possible inequalities are to be ‘equalised’ – the categories of the ‘equalisation equation’ in which greater equality is to be measured: socio-economic (deciles, SIMD or occupational class), gender, ethnicity, rurality, in-care, age (on average, those who start school at a younger age have a very unequal experience of education and continue to learn and achieve less well through to age 18[1] ) etc. Another important aspect is the age at which ‘equality’ of outcome will be judged – in addition to the school stages at which it is proposed to conduct national assessments, a case can be made for stage appropriate assessments at 3 (much of the different at P1 can be predicted at age 3) and 25 (the latter would fit with the GIRFEC framework in maintaining public interest in the progress of all young people, and also takes account of the influence of postgraduate education, unfunded internships and other later inequality in educational opportunity).
  • equality of value: the society into which Scotland’s future citizens are growing values individuals very differently according to the skills they bring to the job market. In contrast, every public school in Scotland aims to value each child equally. However although teachers and schools strive to do this, the schooling system does not value children equally, particularly as selection effects influence the character of schooling through the examination system. What does ‘Higher’ say if not that everything else is ‘lower’? A universal graduation certificate, allowing for diversity in achievements but requiring a minimum ‘threshold’ level, could restore balance to the way the system values young people (see below).
  • equality of input[2]: the two most important sources of input to a child’s education are those of the parent and the schooling system, and great inequality in these inputs contributes hugely to inequality in outputs. (a) Parental inputs vary greatly and at all ages, for example: in the value they place on school education; in differential levels of support in learning to read; in the purchase of privileged access to private education or private tutoring; at later stages, where advantaged parents can find routes to success in the job market or use their social advantages to put a ‘glass floor’ beneath their children. Because the selective function of schooling, and consequently the examination system, is competitive, advantaged parents use every advantage to ensure that their children succeed in the competition (b) School inputs also vary greatly. At present, equality is measured (bizarrely) only by looking at the outputs. Important factors such as the range of additional support services or the amount of money provided for each pupil by different local authorities (including significant differentials in funding to support individual special or socio-economic needs) are not measured or accounted for in the ‘equalisation equation’. Public and political discourse on ‘equality’ needs to recognise the importance and scale of the different inputs made by parents and local authorities and the extent to which these influence the capacity of schools to ‘close the gap’.
  • equity[3]: equality should not mean ‘sameness’. We value diversity and freedom of choice. As young people near the end of their school career, they are exercising agency and choice in a variety of ways in their personal lives. This is also true in school education. Equality cannot and should not therefore be done to the students, but must be done with This is where the concept of ‘equity’ is important: the vision of the Framework is for equity, which is about fairness, not an equality of sameness. At present, the senior phase has become too individualised for those not aiming for Higher examinations, with the consequence that greater inequality may be embedded ‘by the back door’ as the selection effects of competitive examinations kick in. The original vision of Curriculum for Excellence outlined four ‘capacities’ of every educated citizen. Scotland should revisit that vision in the context of ‘education to age 18’ and identify a minimum threshold level of achievement in relation to the desirable outcomes of education, to which every young person should be entitled. These can be matched to the graduation certificate (see below) to provide a strong curricular map for the 15-18 stage, one which values fairly the differing achievements of young people rather than positioning them on a linear scale of examination results, in which some will inevitably be less well positioned than others.
  1. Some recommendations:
    • a Graduation Certificate for all[4]: the government therefore needs to be clear exactly which ‘equalities’ it intends to improve and how it will measure whether the desired improvement has taken place. It is helpful that health and wellbeing are to be included alongside literacy and numeracy. However the principle ‘measurement’ of educational success in our schooling system remains the SQA examinations. The use of ‘positive sustained destinations’ offers one element of a more balanced evaluation. However a genuinely equal valuation of all our young people would certificate the diverse range of achievements and talents which they ‘bring to the table’, not simply their academic progress. In 2007 the OECD report recommended that Scotland introduce a graduation certificate to mark each young person’ progress from full-time education. We should (a) ensure that all young people remain in education (whether in a training or workplace, school or college) to age 18; (b) pilot and then introduce a graduation certificate which would include the variety of ways in which different young people achieve and bring value to our communities (not simply their academic achievements – important as these are). Such a graduation certificate should initially be piloted in chosen locations before widespread introduction.
    • diagnostic individual character of testing[5]: I am in agreement with the idea of standardising testing across the country – at present we have this ‘de facto’ since so many authorities administer standardised tests. However much more care needs to be taken with the conduct of the tests, messages about their intention and communication of their results. At present, too much testing in schools results in judgement, with negative consequences for those whose test results are not seen as being ‘good enough’. The fundamental purpose of testing in education should be, as it is in health, diagnosis – a purpose in which a degree of norm-referencing plays an important part, particularly in relation to development. I therefore propose that, as is the practice in medical/health testing, results are confidential to the young person, his/her teacher(s) and his/her parent and are used only to support planning. Such confidentiality should apply within classrooms as well as more widely.
    • other purposes of testing: currently examination results are used for two further purposes and it seems that the Framework will also use standardised tests for these purposes: (a) to hold schools to account – where standardised testing has been used for this purpose in other systems, it has generally had negative effects of increasing inequality as the schools in the poorest areas tend to be labelled and judged more harshly leading to a negative spiral (b) to provide an overview of the system as a whole – this important function should be delivered through anonymous sampling of standardised results, as was done with the previous national survey.


[1] Murphy, D. (2014) Schooling Scotland (Argyll Press) p21

[2] See Murphy, D. et al (eds) (2015), Everyone’s Future (Institute of Education/Trentham Press)

[3] Ibid Chapters 5 and 11

[4] Murphy, D. (2014) p115ff

[5] Murphy (2104) pp61-63

The Challenges of Equity

This is a full version of the talk I delivered (in an abbreviated fashion!) at the SELMAS Brains Trust in the Malala Building, James Gillespie’s HS Edinburgh on 9th September.

1962794_10202997026913135_7769430376184863284_nThis talk is based on ideas elaborated in Book 7 of the Postcards from Scotland series, ‘Schooling Scotland: Education, equity and community’, available today and from the website:  http://www.postcardsfromscotland.co.uk/book7.html .

9781858566672-114x170The ideas developed in that book have also been applied in the recent analysis of our secondary education system in Scotland – where we’ve come from and where we should be going, ‘Everyone’s Future: Lessons from fifty years of Scottish comprehensive schooling’.

Available at https://ioepress.co.uk/books/schools-and-schooling/everyones-future/

There’s only a short time as we have other very good contributions coming along, so I’m just going to hit you with a succession of ideas to get the grey matter going… with no warm up!

So ‘Challenges of Equity’ – a grand title. Many of us came into education with a commitment to make things better, to do what we could to give every child the best chances, so faced with these challenges we immediately want to do something – it’s our natural condition as teachers and school leaders. We see a problem and we want to sort it out. But I’m not just going to dive in and say what we should do. I want to explore what equity means, and its relationships to another important concept with which it is often confused, ‘equality’, because before we can deliver either equity or equality, we need to ask what kind of equality would we recognise as ‘equitable’. Otherwise, we risk diving into action without knowing properly what it is we want to achieve and what it is that we can achieve.

What then does ‘equity’ mean? The dictionary definition is reasonably clear. Equity, it says, is about fairness, justice, impartiality. That leaves open another question though – ‘What is just or fair?’ and since we’re all likely to make different judgements about what is just or fair, ‘who decides?‘ In a democracy it can’t just be that those with power or might or more money decide and everyone else has to accept it. Nor is it right for the state to make all the decisions and individuals to be disempowered. To understand both what is fair, and who should decide, we need to have recourse to values at the foundation of our democracy. There are lots of contenders, but three foundational values of democracy have stood the test of time – liberty, equality and fraternity (I know ‘fraternity’ has a certain patriarchal ring to it to our ears, so in the book I replaced it with ‘community’ – a concept that has its own difficulties, so for this evening I’ll stick to fraternity, or I’ll end up spending my time debating even more definitions). We need to understand these values of democratic living to understand what is ‘fair’ in a democratic society, and from there what is ‘fair’ in democratic schooling and education.

So what do these different values mean and how do they contribute to ‘equity’.

First of all equality, a word derived from the same root as ‘equity’ and which has three main possible meanings in the field of education:

  • equality of opportunity (one of the meanings used in the Scottish Government’s ‘Framework for Improvement’ issued in draft last week) – this is a weak equailty where everyone is in the same race, but may have very different starting points;
  • equality of outcome (also found in the ‘Framework for Improvement’) – this requires social controls to ensure that, whatever their starting point, individuals end up at the same place. It is a very strong kind of equality, in fact taken to extreme, as to some extent in state communist societies, it ends up being ‘sameness’;
  •  lastly there is and equality of value – this is an important equality for education. It recognises that everyone is different but values what everyone contributes equally.

Often, in political or educational rhetoric, the word ‘equality’ is used in a way which leaves us unsure which of these different meanings is intended. The government’s recent ‘Framework for Improvement’ talks at different points about both equality of opportunity and equality of outcome, without making clear the change involved – two very different forms of equality! The confusion caused by this creates unnecessary disagreements and limits our understanding of what we need to do to achieve fairness.

Liberty (or freedom) is another important foundational democratic value, associated with choice, individuality, difference, plurality, diversity.  Liberty also has an important role in education – education is empowering. It  provides the tools of knowledge, skills and value which allow individuals to make choices and take control of their lives, an important feature of modern democratic living. The language of liberty is the language of human rights, the protection each individual is entitled to in respect of his or her unique worth as a human being. Unrestrained liberty can reduce equality if powerful individuals with more money or other advantages use these advantages to secure their position of power or relative wealth and thus entrench or add to existing inequalities.

Liberty and equality are abstract principles, but fraternity (that word again), or if you will community, puts personal warmth into democracy.  It’s about personal face-to-face relationships of affection, respect, empathy and emotion – in that way it’s both a purpose of democracy and a value of democracy. It says that you’re no democrat if you talk about freedom and equality but then treat the people you meet face to face badly.

I want to explore the relationship between these three important values a little, as I think they are often misunderstood and that’s why we get into difficulties in the debates and arguments we have in education over equity. These values overlap and influence each other and affect our perception of equity and what it is possible to achieve.

The most important thing to say is that we cannot have them each of these to their fullest measure. Each, if pursued to excess, can imperil the other(s). If we take liberty, for example, there is a point at which individual freedom inevitably increases inequality – societies which value individual freedoms highly (such as the USA) tend to be more unequal. On the other hand, the only way to ensure equality is to enforce it – or rather attempt to enforce it (as for example in state Communist systems such as the Soviet Union) with disastrous consequences for liberty. Equality taken to extreme can end up being an enforced ‘sameness’. The point is not to pursue both of these to excess, but to find the right balance point where they can complement each other in our daily lives. Fraternity can also be played to excess where it creates an inward looking ‘here’s tae us’ – it needs the abstract universal values of liberty and equality to raise its sights beyond the immediate community.

The desirable state of democracy then is one in which these three foundational values sit in balance, and that’s a constant dynamic requirement of democratic living – we constantly find these values in tension and have to find a way to keep that tension productive. That’s where ‘fairness’ comes in. We seek a ‘fair balance’. What is true of democratic life in general, is also true of aspects of democratic living such as our education and schooling systems. Here we find liberty and equality in tension with each other – at the macro level of government policy but also at the micro level of school or classroom. Here are some examples.

At the macro level, should individuals be free to choose which school to attend, free to establish their own school, free to set up religious schools? Should parents be free to have or to reject a ‘named person’ (the appeal court case on this was lost recently but now may go to higher court)?

At the micro level, to what extent can a school fairly restrict liberty of dress or enforce the equality of school uniform; indulge individual ‘personalisation & choice’ or require a standard curriculum which gives equal access to important knowledge? In particular in school education, there is the additional dimension of progression from childhood to adulthood, with consequent expectations, particularly in adolescence, of progression in expectations of individual freedom and agency. Our daily lives in the human communities of our schools, and the issues we face in living and working together, are full of tensions between liberty and equality.

Altogether there are nine issues raised in the book Schooling Scotland for Scotland to consider, each one of which has a potential impact on the capacity of the Scottish system to deliver equity. None are about what teachers should do better in classrooms – we already have enough advice on that. These are issues for our politicians and the wider civic community to consider – what is schooling for and how it is organised. Here are three examples from the book, with very  current relevance (given that the book was published at this time last year!). Each of these is about ‘equity’, but underlying the question of ‘fairness’ is a tension between liberty and equality.

The first example is the age children start school. Why do we still have some wee mites starting school at age 4 and a half? On average, they start off behind their peers, all other things being equal, and right through their school careers, they continue to lag behind. The ultimate irony for those who want to leave school at the end of S4, even though they have had the same amount of schooling as their peers, they have to stay on for an extra term – who made that rule up? what educational purpose does it serve? ‘You started school too young, so you have to stay on for an extra term.’ Well if they started school too young, why did we require them to do it? As many ‘winter leavers’ have said to me over the years, “it’s jist no’ fair!’ A substantial number of young children in Scotland start school too young every year, and never catch up. Their self-image as school students is formed in the competitive environment of classroom and playground, and from the beginning they learn to see themselves as less strong, big, mature, skilled, whereas actually they were just a bit too young when they started. Is that fair? It would not be a major change for no child to start school before the age of 5.

My second example is national testing. First of all, let’s look at the word ‘test’. What is a ‘test’ and what is a ‘test’ for?  In medicine, a test involves diagnosis. It’s about investigating, finding out, so that the right strategies can be identified to improve health. However, due to a long tradition of competitive comparison of individuals in school education, testing immediately carries overtones of comparative judgement. We just need to imagine how ridiculous that would be if applied to medicine. You go to the doctor for a test and he tells you that your heart is only at Level 2 or your kidneys are operating at Grade C with the implication that other people are somehow better than you are and that somehow it is your fault. Some people still want to use education tests for comparative judgement – whether at classroom, school or national level – to encourage those involved to do better, even though in a competition there have to be those who come last as well as those who come first. But standardised tests in education can also be used, as medical test are, to inform, to diagnose, to help learning, to ensure that all children are working to the same standard (equality). The tension between liberty and equality runs through the debates :

·         parent, teacher and child can use results to understand the standard expected and to help learning – this use promotes equality and the individual empowerment that underpins liberty;

·         governments, school and teacher can use results to diagnose problems and improve policy responses by observing patterns in provision (by for example noting gender or socio-economic differences) –  this can also lead to greater equality

·         however of late the primary purpose of testing in schools has been distorted – either to allow individual parents and children to make use of aggregated information at school level – league tables  – to inform their choice of school or to allow those in charge of the quality of schooling to take action against schools that are not doing well enough.


Are these uses compatible? Can they be balanced fairly? I argue in Schooling Scotland that standardised test do have value, just as they do in the medical world, if they are handled correctly. There may be some merit in aggregating test information for public policy purposes, but because Scottish school education has been so drowned in the notion of comparative judgement, we need a complete break into a different model and that the basis of that should be confidentiality of individual information to parent/child/teacher (medical model). A very strong ring fence around individual information, avoidance of ‘comparative judgement words’ in classroom, in school, in government (local and national) and aggregated information only for diagnostic purposes, not to inform spurious comparative judgements – we have already seen too much damage from simplistic judgements of that sort. Some elements of ‘liberty’ (of information, choice etc) must be curbed in the interests of equality.

The third example is the weakly underdesigned Senior Phase of Curriculum for Excellence – that is if you can call Senior Phase ‘designed’ at all. I could go on all night about this but I know I have to keep to time so it’s an abbreviated approach. All these arguments are further developed in the book. My view is that Senior Phase is weak and fragmented. At 15 Broad General Education and Senior Phase meet and it’s a car crash. Senior Phase neither articulates with Broad General Education, nor has any underlying rationale of its own. The relationship between academic and vocational education which the national debate (remember that) and the OECD report both called for has been left entirely unresolved. Unresolved also are:

  •         the Scottish sixth year, which schools continue to make work despite it anomalous character
  •         ‘two-term dashes’ dominated by examinations         the different values applied to different pathways (with one called ‘Higher’ – and the implication deeply built into the Scottish education psyche, that everything else must be ‘lower’)
  •          the fragmented governance of education 16-18, with different Ministers in charge of different parts of the system, different budgets and different agencies. Some pursue their education in school alone, some in a mixture of school and college, some progress from school to college or training or employment or a mixture of all three and there’s no overall framework or system.
  •         many of the different pathways are not all clear or well understood in the wider world, while the pressure for ‘comparative judgements’ by external users continues to ensure that, in the absence of any alternative framing within the education system,  performance in national examinations becomes the measure of whether an individual has succeeded in their education or not.
  •        as before, in the previous system, the ‘washback’ from S4/5/6 into S2 and S3 is considerable.

As young people get nearer to the end of their schooling, they begin to see how they will be valued by society beyond school and those valuations have variously motivating or demotivating effects on their progress and education.  Why did the designers of CforEx never ask the most important curricular question any country can ask? One which, by the way, was asked in England by the Nuffield Review: what counts as an educated 18 year old in this day and age? Had Scotland asked such a question, we could then have devised a senior phase to deliver such an education, in the same way as we designed BGE. Instead we have the competing philosophies of BGE and SP meeting in a car crash at age 15/16. How can such a system deliver any of the three equalities – opportunity, outcome, value?

In ‘Schooling Scotland’ I argue that we need to a better design frame, a better philosophical basis, for the senior phase. One way of doing this would be through a Scottish Graduation Certificate, open to all, and of equal value, a ‘rite of passage’ qualification that says to each graduate – ‘you have worked hard and have achieved in a range of ways, not just academic’.

·                     At age 18, for every child / young person

·                     An achievable aspiration for all

·                     A balance of aspirations /outcomes – physical (sport, activities etc), academic (literacy, numeracy, language etc), community service and citizenship, vocational development….

·                     Grading and judgement within categories (such as academic performance) – but only one graduation certificate – pass or fail by meeting the criteria

·                     Education 15-18, not ‘schooling 15-18′ – achievable in school or a combination of school and other educational sites.


More detail can be found in the book.. but this is not a new idea. The OECD report of 2007 asked for it, since ‘Higher Still’ and even earlier, Scotland has struggled to develop a curricular framework which gives equal value to every young person. This should be our next priority.

I’m going to finish by returning to the third democratic value, fraternity (the ‘forgotten value’ – Bernard Crick).  I know that there are problems with the word and its paternalistic overtones (in Schooling Scotland I substituted ‘community’, in Everyone’s Future we used ‘fraternity’)  but there should be no problems with the concept – personal face-to-face relationships of warmth, empathy, emotion.  It is, of course, a value that imbues our Scottish schools today.  Fraternity / community is just what schools do … It is a value that can only be put into practice in ‘face to face’ communities. It is at the micro level of individual school communities that fraternity / community operates to balance the tensions of  ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’ equitably, fairly.

Fraternity / community

  •         Recognises where impositions in the name of equality have affected individuals unfairly
  •         Understands how some individual liberties need to be curtailed in the interests of equality
  •         Puts a name to a number and a face to a name
  •         Helps create a sense of community, even though individuals have different values and interests

Fraternity is the ultimate bottom-up value that brings joy into our lives together and it has a very necessary place in balancing out the day-to-day challenges of school education.  Without it, school pupils are just performance units, numbers on a piece of paper or in a political comparison or slogan.

Ladies and gentlemen,  the challenges of equity…

·      Are not just for schools to sort by some magical formula imposed by a top-down management solution or learned from a ‘best practice’ site, though both of these have a place in a public managed system

  •      They reflect how we live together in community and in democracy
  •      The most important challenge of equity is equality of value – and that’s delivered face to face
  •      The most important challenge of liberty is recognising how and where it reduces equality
  •      These challenges can’t be properly sorted as bits of paper on someone’s desk, as numbers in a spreadsheet, but only face-to-face – something schools can do supremely well. It’s much harder to be unfair to somebody when you’ re going to meet them again tomorrow and the day after.

Our current civic debate on these issues lacks depth. It sometimes seems as if politicians and the media believe that by manipulating policy they can sort all the problems. It’s true that the national framework matters – look at what I said above about Senior Phase – but so do individuals. If we don’t understand the challenges of equity, if we don’t recognise how freedom and equality work with, or against each other, and if we don’t recognise the importance of that face-to-face element of fraternity, community,  but constantly lose ourselves in wadges of national statistics, where people are just performance units without agency or choice, we truly will not properly address the challenges of equity.

Standardised National Testing – what should Scotland do?

Nicola Sturgeon’s recent announcement about her intention to reintroduce national testing in primary schools and the early years of secondary school has stirred up an earlier debate that became quite heated in the early 1990s, with demonstrations by an alliance of teacher unions and parent organisations against Michael Forsyth’s similar plan – that resulted in the half-and-half compromise of 5-14 national testing which had some of the disadvantages of standardised testing without the advantages.  At that time, there was tremendous suspicion of the motives of a Tory Minister seeking to impose an inappropriate and unwelcome policy on Scotland.  But we’re in a very different place in Scotland now and Nicola made clear that, at least in part, she sees this as providing the kinds of information that will help government to reduce the ‘attainment gap’ (see Andrew Denholm’s article in the Herald here) – and who could find fault with that ambition?

It is clearly important for government (both the Scottish Government and the 32 local governments who actually run our schools) to have some useful information on how children are progressing and at the moment the annual survey information doesn’t really help anyone as it doesn’t give information that can be acted on. However standardised testing can have unwelcome effects on schools and classrooms. High-stakes testing can change the character of the classroom experience, introducing invidious comparative judgements about children’s relative abilities and in some cases distorting the curriculum by encouraging teaching to the test. Moreover when Scottish Inspectors used school-level data to judge the performance of schools, that often resulted in unfair harsh judgements, based on misleading use of the data, on schools and teachers working in the most difficult social environments, where the teachers have a much more difficult job. This undoubtedly had an impact on recruitment to such schools..  only the most dedicated teachers would want to go to work in schools in areas of socio-economic difficulty, knowing that they not only might they have to deal with much more challenging learning environments but also that they might thus make themselves more vulnerable to unjust criticism of their difficult work.

Nicola’s statements on this have left us a bit unsure… it seems that she wants the information for national government but passes on the responsibility for any negative effects on to the media. This would be an abnegation of responsibility. Government can and should accept the responsibility for making the right decisions, and that includes reducing or increasing the potentially damaging effects of standardised testing. So what is the best way forward?  How can we provide the kinds of information that governments need without unintended negative consequences resulting?

The answer, I think, is in essence quite simple. Test the children, not the schools. The use of test results to test schools distorts their use. As I said above, it is useful for governments to have aggregate data about ‘performance’. But the people to whom the information is of greatest value are the teacher, the parents (carers) and the child – the key partners in supporting the child’s learning.  The public and media overemphasis on what governments can do, what local government officers can do, what inspectors can do… obscures and devalues the most important people in any learning – the parents, the teacher and the child.

The most important use of standardised testing is diagnostic, not judgemental.  Every parent is entitled to know whether their child is learning well or whether there are difficulties or issues that need support or attention if they are to become fully literate, numerate and capable of developing their capacities to learn more; to understand what obstacles might stand in their child’s way and how teacher, parent and child can work together to remove these. The results of standardised tests can play an important part in discussions between teacher and parent and child, where they consider what progress in learning has been made from year to year. In much the same way, standardised testing of height, weight gain, sight and hearing and other physical characteristics plays an important role in early years development. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before the introduction of such welfare entitlements as free child healthcare and school meals, there was no standardised testing of physical development and some children grew up with avoidable infirmities. In health, testing is a positive process designed to ensure healthy development. In education, testing has been a negative process, designed to rate, grade, compare and judge. Let’s change the school testing model to a more positive one.

As in health, so in education, I believe confidentiality of test results is the key. Standardised test result information should be information for teachers, parents and children, not aggregated to make spurious and unhelpful comparison between schools – ‘test the child not the school’. The right partnership in supporting children’s learning is between the teacher, the parent and the child him or herself. Parents need to know how their child is progressing from early years onwards, just as they need to know if there are problems with health or physical development. In Schooling Scotland published last year in the Postcard from Scotland series, I argue that discussion about test results should be part of an annual supportive confidential discussion between class teacher and parent and child.. removed from any comparative ‘grading’ overtones but focussed on the individual child. The purpose of testing should not be to judge who is top and who is bottom of the class – a process which automatically turns most of the ‘bottom half’ of any class group away from learning – but to help every child develop.

Here’s what I wrote in Schooling Scotland in 2014 (‘issues’ #4 and #5  are two of nine recommendations for improving Scotland’s schooling system. I stand by these points – they are very relevant to the current debate:

I would rather give a much stronger voice to the parents and pupils of a school community than to inspectors who have provided standardised prescriptions for all schools, who have in the past judged quality on the basis of how well their own limited recommendations are being implemented. When as a headteacher I listened to parents talking about what they wanted for their children from school education, they often mentioned standards, but they would also express other types of wants – ‘I want her to grow up happy’, ‘I want her to have good friends,’ ‘I want him to be able to get a secure job’. These kinds of ‘wants’ are echoed in the pragmatic and sensible judgements which pupils make about their futures, memorably demonstrated in the English research of Hoskins and Barker in their recent report on how academies fail to increase pupils’ aspirations. These outcomes will never be delivered by an education system based around narrow competitive individualism, rating every child on a linear comparative scale of success. They require education in communities of equal respect, in schools which value what every child brings, not just how well he or she can perform.

Issue #4: Scotland needs a system of annual online standardised surveys of all teachers, parents and pupils to balance the ‘performance’ concerns of national government with the voice of the local school community.

In such a system, the grass roots voice of the local community would have an equal say of secondary. This is a minimum threshold level below which their capacity for autonomous living is threatened. Current arrangements for moderated internal assessments by class teachers do not give either parents or teachers sufficiently robust data on this vital area. This is a foundational responsibility of primary schools. All Scotland should speak of this as the child’s entitlement, as important as child protection, or good health, or any of the GIRFEC ‘SHANARRI’ areas. Standardised tests of literacy and numeracy are a quick, efficient and contextually-neutral way of assessing progress, widely used in some authorities.

Ministers are rightly wary of standardised testing after Michael Forsyth’s attempt to impose it in the early 1990s – the campaign against his proposals became a high point of pre-devolution civic democracy. The main objection was that test results would be used to set up a ‘schools market’ based on league tables, to judge rather than to help pupils’ progress. My argument is not for a ‘market’, based on results aggregated at school level, but for confidential individual testing, at key points in the primary school, on the medical model. Standardised measurement in literacy and numeracy can check local expectations against international standards, alerting all concerned to slow development, encouraging appropriate support, stimulating corrective actions.

Test results should be individual and confidential to the child, the teacher and the parent and never seen as part of a competition or individual comparison. Parents and children should be full partners in discussion and in subsequent plans, particularly if additional support or recovery programmes are required. There should be no blame attached to restorative interventions any more than to medical interventions. Each child’s progress, in literacy in particular, is too important to cover up when they are falling far behind. We need a ‘New Deal’ for literacy and numeracy in an expanded partnership of school, home and community. A similar testing arrangement for health and well-being, involving periodic self evaluation against standardised measures and encouragment to plan balanced improvements, might be more politically controversial but would give a structured space within which to engage parents and children about childhood obesity and other legitimate health concerns.

Issue #5: All primary school children should benefit from knowing how they are performing in standardised tests of literacy and numeracy, and take part in health and well-being assessments, including elements of structured self assessment. These should be confidential to child, parent and teacher and discussed annually in a confidential session, where parent, child and teacher plan relevant next steps and, if necessary, access appropriate recovery programmes.


‘Everyone’s Future: lessons from fifty years of Scottish comprehensive schooling’ – some key quotes.


Some quotes from the book:

By 1997, there was widespread civic acceptance in Scotland, confirmed by responses to the 2002 National Debate, of the local authority comprehensive six-year school, albeit modulated by parental choice, as the best model for state secondary school education (Munn et al., 2004). This was in marked contrast to England, where in 2001 Alastair Campbell, the Labour prime minister’s spokesman, famously predicted that ‘the day of the bog-standard comprehensive school is over’, thus associating comprehensive schools with mediocrity (Clare and Jones, 2001). There was no appetite in Scotland for ‘opting out’. The focus was on making local authority schools more ‘effective’.p23

CfE is, in reality, a curriculum for 3–15. The previous examination system, which had dominated the 15–18 school curriculum, with Standard Grade and Higher Still courses running both in sequence and in parallel, was simplified by the new exam arrangements, but there was no attempt to overhaul, or even subject to critical scrutiny, many of the existing irregularities of curriculum design and practice in the Senior Phase. p31

Comprehensive education in Scotland has promoted equality…..Equality of opportunity has been expanded through the provision of a broader range of curriculum options, abolishing overt discrimination by gender and extending the range of post-compulsory pathways …Comprehensive reorganization removed some barriers, such as school selection and the more divisive aspects of curriculum and examination systems. But it did not abolish wider social inequalities, or the selective function of schooling, the main factors restricting equality of outcome….Comprehensive education in Scotland has, however, promoted greater equality of value. Pupils who would once have been marginalized as ‘non-certificate’ are now full members of the moral community of the school. p197

Improvement needs to be defined in terms of all of the aims of a comprehensive system.
Current models of improvement – nationally and internationally – are dominated by comparisons of pupil and school performance in standardized tests. While a comprehensive school system that aims to provide a broad general education for all of its young people and which values them equally needs to define improvement in terms of performance, it should also include a wider set of factors involved in balancing liberty, equality, and fraternity in fair and just communities. So too should it include a greater range of contributions to civic health than those that define the individual solely in relation to ‘performance’ in pre-specified competitive tasks. System improvement needs to be specified and evaluated across a wider range of outcomes than test performance alone.  p203