By Terry Wrigley

No one should doubt Nicola Sturgeon’s determination to improve education for children growing up in poverty. Unfortunately, it looks as if she is edging towards testing all pupils at the end of primary seven.

What has driven the First Minister towards the English model? First, the Westminster adversarial style of her political opponents who are using the attainment gap as a political football. They should acknowledge collective responsibility for repeatedly letting this issue slide off the agenda since former Labour Education Minister Peter Peacock first raised it as a priority back in 2005.

Secondly, a two per cent increase in unsatisfactory reading at P7, largely in poorer neighbourhoods. This should not surprise us given the blight of Westminster’s austerity politics on families, not to mention constant denigration of benefit claimants. But knee-jerk responses are unhelpful.

England is one of the most test-driven education systems in the world, frequently rationalised in terms of "closing the gap". It hasn’t worked. There are other lessons to learn, though: the perverse side effects of test scores to compare schools, published as league tables. The results for schools in disadvantaged areas tend to be lower, creating the illusion they are poorer schools. The consequence is parents and teachers shunning these schools, producing greater social segregation and a recruitment crisis. Even the pupils lose faith in their school.

As editor of an international journal on school improvement, I receive plentiful evidence of this from test-dominated countries. I suspect Ms Sturgeon is also worried. Indeed, she has acknowledged that blanket test scores will inevitably be converted into league tables, regardless of the Government’s intent.

The present situation is, admittedly, messy, with different local authorities buying their own tests. The first step should be to analyse which provide useful feedback. Government researchers need to identify, from local authority data, whether there is a great disparity between primary schools in the results of disadvantaged pupils, and when and how it occurs.

Test scores for English schools are divided into those for free-meal pupils and the rest. This does not provide a sound basis for highlighting more "effective" schools and is not closing the gap. It crudely misidentifies educational need: many children in poverty are not entitled to free lunches, whilst many who receive them are not educationally disadvantaged (for instance well-educated single mothers not employed and dedicated grandparents).

The simplistic targeting of free-meal pupils leads schools and teachers to generalise and stereotype pupils. It is normal to walk into an English staffroom and see the photos of all free -meal children on display.

The London Challenge identified the most inspiring teachers and helped colleagues learn from their expertise. This cannot be done by comparing school test results, for various reasons: hidden differences between schools with statistically similar populations; large variations between teachers within each school; primary seven results from highly successful P1 teaching.

Introducing blanket tests which enable league-table comparisons is a perilous and unhelpful move. It is also unnecessary. A more useful alternative would be diagnostic tests (and assessment by teachers) that do not generate an aggregate score.

Consider reading at the end of primary school. It would be helpful to know which pupils still struggle with more complex phonics, or irregular words; which read accurately but slowly;

which read fiction comfortably but have a limited vocabulary; those who have not learned strategies needed for extracting information from more complex reference sources; and those who are developing good skills of critical literacy.

Once you aggregate such complexity into a single score for each child, and then the school, you have lost the information to act upon. Diagnostic assessment would provide richer information but without false comparisons between schools.

The Scottish Government’s Attainment Challenge is too important to fail. It requires far-sighted and coherent thinking. There have been too many short-lived government initiatives. We need to question common practices, including segregating children onto "low ability" tables, or the way first and second years at secondary are typically organised with too many different specialists knowing little about children’s lives and problems. Disengaged pupils need activities that re-engage their interest and commitment. Cuts in special needs budgets must stop.

Schools can make a difference but not all the difference: an essential step towards closing the attainment gap is to end child poverty.

Dr Terry Wrigley is visiting professor at Northumbria University and editor of the international journal Improving Schools. His books include Schools of Hope and Living on the Edge: Rethinking Poverty, Class and Schooling.