Nicola Sturgeon has put education at the heart of her plans for the coming year, announcing proposals to bring in national testing in Scotland’s primary schools.
The Scottish First Minister said that ensuring youngsters do better in classes is “arguably the single most important objective” in her Programme for Government.
She announced new national, standardised assessments would be brought in for pupils in primaries one, four and seven, as well as for youngsters in the third year of secondary school – with the tests to be trialled in some schools next year before being rolled out across the country in 2017.
Council leaders and some opposition politicians warned the move could be a “retrograde step for Scottish education” which would see the return of national league tables.
Ms Sturgeon told MSPs at Holyrood: “I have no desire to see crude league tables that distort rather than enhance our understanding of children’s attainment and school performance.”
But Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie claimed testing young pupils would “lead to teaching to the test and every child put under unacceptable pressure to make the numbers look good”.For full analysis and reaction to Ms Sturgeon’s announcements, see Wednesday’s CourierHe added: “Despite what the First Minister says, it is clear that we are returning to the kind of testing and tables the previous Liberal Democrat/Labour administration abolished.”
Councillor Stephanie Primrose, education spokeswoman for local government body Cosla, also voiced concerns, saying: “The announcement of the national education framework today could be an extremely positive step for education or, if we are not careful and despite assurances, could turn the clock back to national testing and, whether intended or not, league tables.
“We share the concerns of parents and unions that, if not handled correctly, this risks being a retrograde step for Scottish education that heaps more pressure on pupils and teachers, and leads to inaccurate and unfair comparisons between schools.”
However, Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, argued the First Minister “is not advocating a return to the failed high-stakes testing regime of the past, which the EIS would have opposed resolutely”.
Instead, he said the Scottish Government’s intention was to “create a Scottish-designed bank of standardised tests to support teachers’ professional judgement”.
Ms Sturgeon told MSPs she was “determined that we make available much more information about performance in primary and lower secondary school”.
The new assessments will focus on literacy and numeracy, and will be based on different tests already used by local councils, so should not increase teacher workload, Ms Sturgeon said.
Bringing them in will “provide robust and consistent evidence to help teachers judge whether or not a child is achieving the required level” under the Scottish Government’s Curriculum for Excellence.
The First Minister said: “Parents need meaningful information about the progress of their children.
“Teachers need to know which pupils are doing well and which ones need more support.
“Governments – local and national – need to have reliable data to inform policy.
“All of us need to know whether or not the twin aims of raising attainment overall and closing the attainment gap are being met. And that’s the key. Assessing and measuring attainment is not an end in itself. The purpose is to drive improvement.”
New Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said the First Minister had “placed educational inequality at the heart of her statement” .
But she added that as “almost half of the poorest kids leaving primary school are unable to write properly or to count properly”, the government’s own record on education should “shame us as a nation”.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson welcomed the new tests, saying: “It’s simply wrong that parents across Scotland can see their child go all the way through primary school and halfway into high school without having any independent measure of how well they’re doing.
“We need to measure ourselves against the rest of the world so our children have the very best chance of success.”
The plans for national assessments were unveiled as Ms Sturgeon set out her programme for government, detailing the legislation her SNP administration will bring forward in the coming year.
A total of eight new Bills are planned, including tougher legislation on domestic abuse, which will also attempt to tackle the problem of people sharing private pictures of former partners in so-called “revenge porn” cases.
The Scottish Government will also bring in a Private Tenancies Bill, which will include provisions for rent controls to be brought in in certain areas.
The First Minister also set out how she would use new powers over tax and welfare that that are coming to Scotland in the wake of last year’s independence referendum.
But she said the “limited welfare powers” in Westminster’s Scotland Bill “fall far short of what we would need to fully mitigate the harm caused by UK Government policies”.
The Scottish Government will invest £100 million this year in a bid to lessen the impact welfare reforms, with the SNP leader pledging: “We will continue to stand against a UK Government that imposes austerity on the vulnerable while preparing to spend billions renewing Trident.”
If the SNP are still in power after next May’s Holyrood elections, Ms Sturgeon said a Social Security Bill would be introduced in the first year of the new parliament to pave the way for a new Scottish social security system.
This will “make provision for the earliest possible abolition of the bedroom tax”, she pledged.
While the First Minister argued the package of devolution reforms on offer from Westminster was “not as ambitious as we would like”, she said it would provide “some additional powers to benefit individuals, businesses and local communities”.
However, she warned the UK Government MSPs would only back its Scotland Bill if the accompanying deal on Scotland’s funding is “fair”.
Ms Sturgeon said: “We hope that Parliament will be able to consent to the Bill by March 2016.
“But let me make clear that we will only recommend consent if the accompanying fiscal framework is also fair to Scotland.”
The SNP leader set out her programme for government just less than a year after Scots rejected independence in the referendum, opting instead to remain part of the UK.
She said she wanted to “harness the passion and energy shown in the referendum, and use it to tackle the social and economic issues of our times”.
Ms Sturgeon stated: “The referendum debate also revealed a deep yearning for a fairer society, as well as a more prosperous economy.
“This ambitious and reforming programme for government speaks to those aspirations. It sets out how this government will work – now and in the long term – to achieve our vision for Scotland’s future.”The eight billsThe Scottish Government’s Programme for Government sets out the policies, actions and legislation that it will take forward in 2015-16.
It is designed to create “a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through sustainable and inclusive economic growth, and to equip Scotland for the challenges of the next decade and beyond”.
The programme includes eight bills:Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm BillDesigned to tackle domestic abuse and reform the law on harassment and sexual offending with the creation of a new statutory domestic abuse aggravator and a new offence of sharing private intimate material – commonly known as revenge porn.It will also require judges to give juries specific directions when dealing with sexual offence cases, aims to enhance protections for victims of harassment, give Scottish prosecutors and courts powers in relation to existing child sexual offences when committed elsewhere in the UK, reform civil orders to enhance the protections available for communities from sex offenders and to help prevent sexual harm, and improve the information and support available to victims and witnesses. Bankruptcy Consolidation BillDesigned to make the currently incoherent and unstructured law on personal insolvency more accessible for practitioners and those affected by it, saving time and money. Budget BillThe annual Budget Bill provides Parliamentary approval for the Scottish Government’s spending plans, allowing the allocation of resources to its strategic objectives. Burial and Cremation BillDesigned to update the century-old legislation on burial and cremations, address pressure on burial grounds and support their long-term sustainability including allowing the reuse of full burial lairs.It also aims to provide burial authorities with greater powers to maintain burial grounds, improve the process involved in cremating pregnancy losses, babies and infants, improve the safeguards around cremation and introduce new inspection powers. Lobbying BillThe Lobbying Bill is designed to improve the public awareness of lobbying activity directed at MSPs and Ministers. The Bill will take account of the findings of the recent inquiry by the Scottish Parliament’s Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee into lobbying in Scotland and aims to introduce a “measured and proportionate register of lobbying activity”. Private Tenancies BillA Scottish Private Rented Tenancy will replace the current Assured system, remove the “no-fault” ground for repossession which currently allows landlords to evict tenants whose fixed-terms have ended.It is also designed to ensure more predictable rents and protection for tenants against excessive rent increases, including the ability to introduce local rent controls for rent pressure areas. Scottish Elections (dates) BillThis Bill will ensure that the Scottish Parliament elections following the May 2016 elections will not coincide with the next scheduled UK general election in May 2020, specifically moving the election scheduled in May 2020 to May 2021. Scottish Fiscal Commission BillThe Bill will put the current non-statutory Scottish Fiscal Commission on a statutory basis, directly accountable to Parliament, to scrutinise tax forecasts and other fiscal projections prepared by the Scottish Government.