The Education Secretary is under pressure to give primary schools the freedom to ditch P1 tests after a survey found many headteachers feel they are burdensome and of little use.

Greg Dempster, general secretary at the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland (AHDS), also suggested a significant number of school leaders would prefer not to use Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSAs) with four- and five-year-olds.

Despite the concern, Shirley-Anne Somerville and her officials are ploughing ahead with plans to deliver an updated system that will see the taxpayer foot a bill of up to £17 million for SNSAs and Measaidhean Coitcheann Nàiseanta airson Foghlam tron Ghàidhlig (MCNG), their Gaelic medium equivalent.

Taken online in P1, P4, P7 and S3, the assessments were originally introduced amid worry over sliding pupil scores in areas such as maths and science. There is no pass or fail and children do not have to prepare or revise.

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SNSAs are designed to support teacher judgement of pupil progress against key literacy and numeracy milestones. Figures for the proportion of children reaching the expected level relevant to their age and stage are then reported in the Scottish Government’s Achievement of Curriculum for Excellence Level (ACEL) data.

Ministers insist the assessments provide “nationally consistent, objective and comparable” information. But their use with P1 pupils has become a longstanding source of criticism due to workload, concerns over educational value and reports that some who sit them are left distressed. Others question their compatibility with modern, play-based approaches to early years development.

Mr Dempster said the 2021 AHDS survey - which received 1,184 responses from headteachers, deputes and other senior staff - indicated a widespread feeling that the tests are of limited benefit in P1 classrooms.

Fewer than a third of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that P1 SNSAs were useful, while nearly 46 per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed. More than one in five respondents (22.8%) said they were “neutral” on the issue.

The contrast with responses regarding the use of SNSAs with P4s and P7s is striking. At P4 level, 62.7% agreed or strongly agreed that the assessments were useful. The figure at P7 level was just over 64%. In both cases the totals were up a little compared with 2020, despite Covid-related disruption. AHDS analysis states that the view of P1 assessments “leans quite strongly to the negative”.

HeraldScotland: AHDS survey findings show headteachers and other senior staff are far more positive about using SNSAs with P4 and P7 pupils. Source: AHDSAHDS survey findings show headteachers and other senior staff are far more positive about using SNSAs with P4 and P7 pupils. Source: AHDS

Mr Dempster said: “There’s a lot more supervision required to get P1 pupils to sit down and do this sort of assessment. And what I hear is that, quite often, that has to be done in much smaller groups – and so it involves either the teacher or another member of staff being with those small groups, or taking over the class so the teacher can be with a small group. The mechanics of administering the P1 assessment is what creates the workload and uses teacher time and school leadership time.

“In terms of the value, what I hear about the P1 SNSAs is that members talk about some children performing very differently one day than they would the next at P1 level.

"Also, they know how the children are performing at that stage over the piece, and so the tests are not valuable in terms of providing additional information at that stage that they wouldn’t know.”

HeraldScotland: AHDS general secretary Greg Dempster said many headteachers would prefer not to use SNSAs with P1 pupils.AHDS general secretary Greg Dempster said many headteachers would prefer not to use SNSAs with P1 pupils.

Asked to outline what he thought many primary school leaders would like to see happen to P1 SNSAs, Mr Dempster said: “Not have them. Either just maintain the P4 and and P7 ones, or continue to produce the P1 SNSA, but make it up to individual schools and teachers whether they wish to use it. Because there are some that see a benefit in it.

"If they were made available but the requirement to conduct them was taken away, that would be aligned with the empowering schools agenda.”

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Last year, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development published a landmark report that queries whether SNSAs can adequately support teacher judgement and, at the same time, produce the sort of information needed for effective monitoring of the education system. It suggests developing a long-term, sample-based approach that would focus on the experience and achievements of a representative selection of pupils across different kinds of schools.

A Government spokeswoman said: “In providing nationally consistent, objective and comparable information, Scottish National Standardised Assessments can provide a helpful additional source of information for teachers when considering children’s progress.

“David Reedy’s 2019 review of SNSAs for P1 was clear the assessments should continue and that they had the potential to play a significant role in informing and enhancing teachers’ professional judgements.

"He also found no incompatibility between a play-based approach and the P1 assessments. Data from the 2020-21 SNSA staff survey shows that teachers are increasingly finding the SNSAs helpful in their teaching and learning.”