A simplified timeline of events:
2010: Curriculum for Excellence (forward-thinking, aspirational and inspirational) begins full implementation.
2010: Standardised testing is abolished.
BUT: HMI start asking to see our standardised testing. (But, erm, we just got rid of it… )
THEN: Schools and local authorities spend ££££s on standardised testing.
2012: SSLN (Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy) provides a snapshot of how well we’re doing with literacy across Scotland at P4, P7 and S2. (Hint: It’s not great news.)
2014: SSLN (Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy) provides a snapshot of how well we’re doing with literacy across Scotland at P4, P7 and S2. (Hint: It’s even worse news.)
2016: The Scottish Government decides that we need more standardised testing and data…
But we already have data. We’ve had data since 2012 that tells us how we’re getting on with literacy in Scotland since the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence. And we do not appear to have acted on this data or information at all.
As it is a sample survey (children are at chosen at random to take part), the SSLN is low stakes, snapshot test – the only real burden is the administration of it. Children do not fear it. It does not stress them. The information gleaned informs the politicians, the policy makers and anyone else who needs to know, how the ‘system’ is performing at these key stages.
However, what we are missing, crucially, is a measure of how we’re getting on further down the school with literacy. Are we getting it right at the beginning? Are we setting our children off on the right path? How can we ensure better results at P4 and beyond, if we are not clear about what’s happening at the start?
N.B. POLAAR is not fit for purpose and is based on out of date research with regards to the teaching and the assessment of reading. It is also only supposed to be used with struggling children.
So, before we run back to standardised testing, couldn’t we simply add another element to the SSLN – one that plugs the data gap and assesses children at the end of Primary 1 (or Primary 2 if you prefer) – to see whether what we’re doing is giving children the best start in literacy?
Want to start straight away? Well, we could just adopt the Phonics Screening Check from England – it’s free, easy to implement, light-touch and is, more importantly, research-informed. It also provides valuable formative assessment information that can be used directly in the classroom to inform teaching and learning.
The screening check would also give us a handy benchmark for comparison with England… although we might not like the results at first. (Hint: England is way ahead of us when it comes to the teaching of reading…)
We also need to urgently review and reinforce the national guidance when it comes to the teaching of reading. The Scottish Government’s Literacy Action Plan (2010) states that schools should be using synthetic phonics to teach reading:
Local authorities and practitioners should make use of all proven teaching methods… For example, in primary schools, the use of synthetic phonics can be an effective method for raising achievement at the point of acquiring basic literacy skills.
Scottish Government Literacy Action Plan, 2010
However, in our Curriculum for Excellence documents this advice is ignored and instead the ‘balanced’ approach or ‘mixed methods’ is what is demanded. Mixed methods includes sight words, multi-cueing and guessing, which form no part of the synthetic phonics pedagogy at all.
(But shockingly, as around 90%+ of primary teachers in Scotland have had no formal training or input with regards to the teaching of reading, either as part of their teaching qualification or professional development, then it is no wonder that confusion reigns.)
We need joined up thinking – coherent guidance and useful, insightful assessments that are part of everyday teaching and learning. And what we really, really need, is proper training for teachers, as part of initial teacher education, and beyond.
Want to improve our results? It’s all about the teaching and learning, stupid.
Start with that.