NO ONE likes losing – especially governments. Parliamentary defeats are bad for morale and for minority governments, like the SNP’s, they expose the reality that their administration is a kind of confidence trick, based on keeping the opposition parties divided. So why does Nicola Sturgeon seem to be positively inviting one of her most serious parliamentary defeats since taking office – on primary school testing?

The Scottish opposition parties rarely unite around anything, but they’ve endorsed a motion calling for a meaningful vote on the Scottish National Standardised Assessment (SNSA) of four and five-year-olds, and hope to defeat Ms Sturgeon as early as next week. Even the Tories, who normally support testing, are calling on the Education Secretary John Swinney to “bin P1 testing”. The Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, Willie Rennie, who’s made a name for himself on this issue, is eagerly awaiting an embarrassing climbdown, which will confirm that Nicola Sturgeon has “lost her way” and become “out of touch”. But she’s showing no signs of backing down. In fact she’s giving every indication of persevering with testing even if she loses the parliamentary vote.

Nicola Sturgeon is certainly out of touch with most of the teaching profession. The Educational Institute for Scotland is militantly opposed to primary testing on the grounds that it doesn’t provide “meaningful results”. The EIS recently submitted a dossier of comments from teachers and parents that made primary testing sound like a form of child abuse. There were tales of kids “bursting into tears”, “quaking in fear” and even “soiling themselves”. Campaign groups like Upstart say that it is wrong to force academic education on five-year-olds when they should be in playschool.

So why is the First Minister, who is normally so responsive to the liberal-left consensus apparently holding a deaf ear to this clamour of dissent from everyone from the Scottish Green Party, to the former Children’s Commissioner Tam Baillie? Some have suggested that it’s all down to cruel John Swinney, who is supposedly obsessed with numbers and has a desiccated calculating machine where his heart should be. But the motivation here is coming directly from Nicola Sturgeon herself.

She has repeatedly defended assessing primary children, most recently at First Minister’s Questions. “It’s not high stakes testing”, she said this week “there’s no pass or fail. These are integral to what teachers should be doing to assess how the young person is progressing”. That aroused more negative comment from teachers, who don’t like politicians telling them how to do their job.

Well, Ms Sturgeon clearly isn’t afraid of upsetting teachers. The First Minister is a dedicated crusader for academic standards, especially for working class children, who she believes are being let down by some schools. She has staked her reputation on closing the educational attainment gap and will use any and every means at her disposal. The Scottish Government has been accused of presiding over a decline in the quality of education, as measured by international league tables such as PISA.

As for child abuse, she can’t see what all the fuss is about, and says that the overall response from teachers has been positive. These tests may be called “assessments” but they aren’t designed to punish children or divide them into winners and losers. They are, she says, merely “diagnostic tools” to detect when a child has problems with reading or numbers. Schools and local authorities already do their own testing, so why should national ones be any more injurious to the mental wellbeing of children than local ones?

Some teachers clearly suspect that nationwide testing is designed to single out schools which are performing badly, and while the FM hasn’t explicitly talked of league tables or comparisons, this is almost certainly part of it. The First Minister doesn’t want evidence of failing schools, or teachers for that matter, to be kept in-house, withheld from public view. Most of the best achieving countries such as Hong Kong and Singapore use national testing to raise standards, and they were used extensively in London, where state schools have improved hugely in the last 20 years.

No, Singapore may not be a model many wish to emulate here. Most commentators and teaching professionals favour the Finnish system, where there is no testing and where children don’t start formal academic education until they are seven.

Actually, the Finns have had their own version of our falling standards debate since they slipped to 13th in maths in 2015. Scotland was 15th.

But there’s no doubt that the Finnish model is effective – though that may be down largely to the small size of the classes, and the fact that Nordic countries like Finland and Norway tend to have less social inequality.

The reality is that children from relatively wealthy backgrounds will always do well, whether they get formal teaching or not. It is the children from poorer, or disorganised families – or no families at all – who do worst. If they’re not identified early, and problems with numeracy and literacy properly tackled, then they are likely to fail throughout the educational journey. The odd thing is that everyone, even the teaching unions and Upstart, agree with this, and don’t oppose assessment as such. Their opposition is to these tests being conducted nationwide.

Indeed, the more you look at this raging controversy, the less you understand it. The image that has been portrayed of children sitting in regimented rows, wetting themselves in fear of failure, is surely an exaggeration. Or if it isn’t, then there is something seriously wrong with the way the assessments are being administered, which would seem to argue for more standardised approach. Nor are these tests an exercise in stigmatising the less able. This isn’t some 11-plus for five year olds. There seems no obvious reason why the assessments that are already being conducted shouldn’t be adapted so that schools and the Scottish Government can get some idea of what is going wrong, and what is going right, in the classroom. Isn’t that what governments are expected to do?