An open letter to Mr John Swinney

12th June 2016

Dear Mr Swinney

Yesterday I went to an inspiring conference about education called #northernrocks in Leeds. You can read about it in my blog here:

But the blog post does not mention one really crucial part of the day,  which was a debate entitled ‘Can tests and exams tell us what we need to know about children’s progression and the effectiveness of our education system?’

I wanted to write and tell you about this because I believe that it has implications for us as we introduce the Scottish NIF (National Improvement Framework).

Lots of us in Scottish education have said a lot about this already, as you will know. I wrote this a while back, for example: George Gilchrist and James McEnaney are others who have written knowledgeably and eloquently on the subject.

I was born and educated in England and taught there until 2007. I was well-acquainted with standardised tests; I was a Key Stage Three Strategy manager tasked with closing the gap amongst eleven to fourteen year old and raising SATS (Standard Attainment Tests) levels was key. But my school had a sensible, inclusive approach to use of data and a commitment to measuring added value; comparing a child’s progress to an individual baseline, rather than to an age- or stage- related baseline. We used programmes such as Alis, Yellis and MidYIS from the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University to achieve this. As a drama teacher, I was initially a cynic: “How can you tell me that a test taken with pen and paper can predict success in a practical, creative subject?” I scoffed. But the tests were actually sophisticated enough that they could, so I was largely converted.

On moving to Scotland I was surprised at the lack of any common approach to tracking and use of baseline data. I was told that it was not in the spirit of Curriculum for Excellence but that some schools used data such as CATS tests (Cognitive Abilities Tests) and PIPS and InCAS (also from CEM at Durham) but that there was no national requirement to do so.

I was also aware of an element of benchmarking and league tabling in the senior phase through STACs (Standard Tables and Charts) which have now been superseded by Insight (also from CEM).

When I first heard about the plan to use more data in Scotland I thought that it may be helpful; I shared my positive experiences of value-added tracking with people and was optimistic.

But there was and is a big caveat in my optimism and yesterday’s debate reminded me of this.

In the debate, Laura McInerney, journalist for Schools Week and The Guardian broadly spoke ‘for’ testing (replacing and partially representing Amanda Spielman, new chair of Ofqual (The English Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation) who had pulled out).

Kevin Courtney, Deputy Secretary of the NUT (National Union of Teachers) broadly represented the ‘anti’ lobby.

Laura spoke of the need for accountability and said that tests and exams can tell us a lot, but not everything. She said that if we take people’s money and children, we have a duty to show what we are doing with them.

She spoke about two examples of how tests can be used.

Firstly, driving tests are useful in that they show that people are safe to be on roads. They are not there to help us judge the driving instructor, however.

Secondly, phonics tests show whether a child can do something specific in relation to literacy. If not, the test results should encourage us to consider what resources and support are needed to make it better for the child.

Laura felt that in general, tests can be useful but that in England, scores are being used to drive political agendas and for the wrong sort of accountability.


Kevin emphasised the negativity and stress amongst teachers, learners and families that has been created by the current high-stakes testing in England and spoke of a crisis; good tests can do some good things but the ones in English primaries just now are spectacularly failing and things are ‘beyond breaking point’. His comments receive great applause from those present.

He stressed that educationalists have been working on getting testing right for years, even if the DfE (Department for Education) has not.

He quoted research by Wynne Harlen and Cambridge University into the English 2014 SATS and urged that the conclusions of this research are not overlooked, as they point to important factors that should encourage a rejection of high-stakes standardised testing such as SATS.

He said that he liked the idea of looking at how the driving test works but added that the driving test is criterion-based, so that potentially all can pass; plus the instructor puts you in when you are ready and not because of some age-related structure of testing.

He explained that as school tests are currently norm-referenced, not criterion-referenced, they create a culture where someone HAS to fail. This in itself leads to a climate of negativity.

Kevin summarised by pointing to the research which shows that we need to be clear about whom tests are for and what the information gathered is for. If tests work, they need to link clearly to:


Teacher judgement;

Banks of materials that people use to judge standards.

I was encouraged last month to hear that those working on the NIF have agreed that teacher judgement is key and that we need to consider carefully how the information from national tests will be used in Scotland.

But yesterday made me want to write to you to urge that they really are serious about this.

I love England. I love lots of people who teach and learn in England. I have learnt a lot from teaching and from teachers in England. But I hate what they are going through at present. I also love Scotland and the Curriculum for Excellence.

A wise man learns from his mistakes. A genius learns from the mistakes of others. We have a moral duty in Scotland, in the interests of learner- and teacher-wellbeing, to learn from England’s mistakes.

All of the other delegates yesterday were given a postcard to send to Nicky Morgan (your counterpart in England) with a message from their profession. She may well get around 495 postcards next week.

You may not get any other messages as a result of yesterday so I urge you, please, to heed mine.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.

Kindest regards


PS If you get a chance, I would recommend that you get to know a young man from Edinburgh called Chris Kilkenny. He left school with no qualifications and referred to himself as a ‘chink’ in his school’s perfect data. At 21, he gave the opening speech of yesterday’s conference to 500 educationalists and he was phenomenal. A credit to himself and Scotland. He is a voice to be heard.

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