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Why the Holyrood Baby needs kindergarten

Image credit: CfE

Why the Holyrood Baby needs kindergarten

Sue Palmer will be speaking at Holyrood’s event, Kirsty in Adversity: Getting It Right For Every Child, in May. Click here for more information or to book a place.

On 12th May 2019, Kirsty the Holyrood baby will be three years old and entitled to up to 600 hours a week of nursery education, which in 2020 will practically double to 1140 hours. 

In fact, Kirsty could already be at nursery as an ‘eligible two’ but her mum, Caley, probably didn’t take up this government offer (there was a PR problem – eligible children were originally referred to as ‘vulnerable twos’ and parents didn’t like this stigmatising label).

Still, most Scottish three-year-olds go to nursery so Caley will almost certainly enrol her daughter, and Kirsty will join the recruits to the Early Level of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) (see graphic above).

When CfE was introduced in 2010, the Early Level was intended to bring Scotland into line with the type of developmentally-appropriate Early Childhood Education and Care provided in most of the developed world. Unfortunately – because of Scotland’s extremely early school starting age – the Early Level is split right down the middle. In August of the year they turn five, Scottish children transfer from nursery to Primary 1.

Five is a tender age for such a big change but, if CfE had been properly implemented, it wouldn’t be too traumatic. The ethos of P1 should be identical to that of a high-quality nursery. Pedagogy would be play-based and children supported at their own individual level in terms of physical, emotional, social and cognitive development. There’s huge variation in children’s overall development at the age of five, which is why the best kindergarten systems extend to the age of six or seven.

Sadly, implementation of CfE’s Early Level has been far from perfect. Due to long-established cultural expectations, most primary schools still introduce the three Rs from the beginning of P1. The Scottish government has now compounded this unnecessarily early drive for academic achievement by introducing Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSA) in literacy and numeracy for P1 children.  SNSA is based on highly aspirational ‘benchmarks’ for achievement, which have been extrapolated from the original ‘experiences and outcomes’ designed for Early Level in ways which are far from the original developmental intention.

These benchmarks (and the prospect of SNSA) inevitably affect pedagogical practice, not just in P1 but in many nurseries where ‘school readiness is regarded as a high priority.  When I show the benchmarks to early years specialists from northern European countries, their appalled responses include words like ‘crazy’ and ‘cruel’.

An early start on the teaching of specific literacy and numeracy skills is particularly crazy and cruel for Kirsty who – due to social and economic disadvantage – is likely to be a year or so behind her peers in terms of spoken language and problem-solving (essential foundational skills for academic achievement).  She needs at least two – preferably three – years of high-quality, play-based ECCE to ensure as level a playing field as possible for the formal teaching of literacy and numeracy skills.

This is one of the reasons why Upstart Scotland is campaigning for a relationship-centred, play-based kindergarten stage for three to seven-year-olds. We want to publicise the developmentally-based principles of Early Level and ensure they’re well-understood in primary schools and among the general public (not to mention politicians). Until Early Level is properly implemented, disadvantaged five-year-olds will be pressurised to achieve beyond their developmental capacity, which is infinitely more likely to widen the poverty-related attainment gap than to close it.    

As well as the obvious ill-effects in terms of physical health, there’s rapidly growing evidence that an largely indoor, sedentary, screen-based lifestyle undermines the development of children’s social and emotional skills, self regulation (the ability to control behaviour and focus of attention) and resilience (the capacity to manage stress and bounce back from difficulties). A Nordic-style kindergarten stage – with plenty of active, social, outdoor play – upports long-term health and well-being. And, since another key ingredient in development of the life-skills described above is ‘close, supportive relationships with adult carers’, Kirsty would also benefit from the non-judgemental, developmentally-aware approach of well-qualified ECCE practitioners.

Current early years policy, hastily cobbled together over the last twenty years, is not working. The introduction of P1 tests illustrates the government’s lack of understanding about ECCE pedagogy, while plans for the 1140 hours expansion are based on staffing Scottish nurseries with practitioners who have minimal ECCE qualifications.

Scotland urgently needs a coherent, well-funded approach to early years (defined by the UN as birth to eight). And Kirsty – like all 21st century Scottish children – needs high-quality, developmentally-appropriate kindergarten education and care, preferably till the age of seven.

Sue Palmer is a writer, literacy specialist and Chair of Upstart Scotland (

She will be speaking at Holyrood’s event, Kirsty in Adversity: Getting It Right For Every Child. Visit the event page for more information or to book a place.

 ‘Upstart: the case for raising the school starting age and providing what the under-sevens really need’ is published by Floris (2016)

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