20 September 2001

S1M-2236 Schools (Assessment)

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 20 September 2001

[THE DEPUTY PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:30]

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Schools (Assessment)

The Presiding Officer (Sir David Steel): The next item of business is a debate on motion S1M-2236, in the name of Jack McConnell, on effective assessment in Scotland's schools.


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Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): In his speech, I heard Jack McConnell say "count" at least six times in the last three sentences, so he is clearly counting on something. This is an education debate, and it is appropriate that we go away this afternoon having learned something, so I want to tell members that 240 is 1,099,511,627,776. Members can check that if they wish. That number is also 1,048,5762 and 1,048,576 is in turn 1,0242. That is very interesting, but is the square root of next to nothing of use to anybody, except as a party piece?

Mr Frank McAveety (Glasgow Shettleston) (Lab): That bad!

Stewart Stevenson: At least I can count on Mr McAveety's support and at least my party piece is factual and correct. Much of the measurement that we have been talking about has, to be frank, been of no use. Brian Monteith brought the spectre of Michael Forsyth to the party so, if he does not mind, I shall read a quotation about Michael Forsyth from The Scotsman of 5 June 1996. This is what George Robertson, who really knew how to do arithmetic and went to another place for much more money, had to say about Michael Forsyth. He said:

"You are going to get another bloody nose. You came back with the same old idea and you are going to get the same message from the Scottish people: 'We don't want these failed ideas'."

What was George talking about? He was talking about plans for testing in primary schools. We continue to feel that that is not going to be helpful.

Dr Sylvia Jackson (Stirling) (Lab): Will Stewart Stevenson give exact details about what he understands was meant by that testing in private schools, which the Labour party was so against?

Stewart Stevenson: Testing is testing. I am a little uncertain about exactly what Sylvia Jackson's question is. I was talking about primary schools and the introduction of testing in S1 and S2. That is what was proposed in 1996 and that is what George Robertson was commenting on at the time.

I have undertaken a little bit of teaching over the past year, which I have thoroughly enjoyed. However, it was in a university environment. I wondered why I was enjoying it so much, so I talked to some people who teach in the secondary school system. I discovered that their time is overwhelmed by administration, much of which concerns testing. They find much of it confusing, and the speeches of members who were directly involved in secondary school teaching have been interesting in that regard.

National testing carries a risk in any event. I cite another educational metaphor. The first law of genetics is that the more highly optimised a species is for an environment, the more adversely it is affected by another environment. A national scheme, rather than one that is based on the skills and talents of teachers in their own areas, taking into account their own needs, is liable to produce unsatisfactory results.

My final point for Jack McConnell is on information technology. I spent 30 years working in information technology, so the minister might be surprised when I say that we should be cautious about automating processes by using IT in schools. However, I urge him to consider piloting very carefully any new systems that are introduced, because ill thought out, underdeveloped or under-researched IT systems can increase the work load rather than save effort.


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