Could raising the school starting age help Scotland close the gap on some of its European neighbours?
When SNP activists last month backed calls to increase the school starting age to six, it marked an important milestone for campaigners who have spent years attempting to radically reshape the way the youngest pupils are educated in Scotland’s schools.
At the party’s conference in Aberdeen, delegates voted in favour of a motion to introduce a statutory play-based kindergarten phase for children between the ages of three and six, similar to that used in Nordic countries such as Sweden and Finland. The latter, where formal schooling doesn’t begin until the age of seven, has long been regarded as an educational powerhouse.
“Active, social play…helps develop physical fitness, social skills, cognitive capacities and personal qualities such as creativity, problem-solving, self-regulation and emotional resilience,” the motion read. “[Conference] acknowledges the views of parents, teachers, early years experts…who believe that children under six should not face the pressures and structures of the formal school system.”
There is indeed a significant and long-established body of evidence showing that play-based education is beneficial for the youngest children, and the concept has been at the centre of Curriculum for Excellence, Scotland’s school curriculum, since its launch in 2010.
Research published earlier this year by academics at the University of Cambridge found that not only could “guided play” support key aspects of learning and development, but that it could be just as effective as traditional methods in developing numeracy and social skills. Crucially, the study found that children may master some skills – notably in maths – more effectively through play than other methods.
But questions remain over how the kindgarten phase would be provided in Scotland’s schools and how it would be paid for. The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), the country’s largest teaching union whose members recently voted overwhelmingly in favour of industrial action, has warned the concept could be used as a “Trojan horse” by those who “don’t have the interest of our youngest learners at heart, but who do have their eyes on pounds and pence”.
Sue Palmer is a former primary school headteacher who now leads Upstart Scotland, a charity campaigning to have the school starting age raised alongside the introduction of a new phase centred around structured play. She began researching the importance of play 25 years ago when she became aware that children were doing less and less of it.
“Children these days aren’t playing anywhere near as much as they used to,” she says. “Over the last 30 years or so, outdoor active play has become almost impossible for many children.
“There’s so much evidence that shows that play and good relationships with caring adults in the early years are the key things for developing long-term emotional resilience and dealing with anxiety…if kids are being pressed to do things they’re not ready for, they’re anxious – they’re being put under stress that is unnecessary.”
Much of the structure around schooling in Scotland dates back to the Education (Scotland) Act of 1872, which established school boards and made it compulsory for children between the ages of five and 13 to attend class. Despite all the pedagogical innovation since, the year children start school has remained stubbornly fixed for 150 years.
Palmer says Scotland’s relatively early school starting age is a relic of a previous age and has been constantly overlooked, despite evidence from elsewhere in Europe showing that children who start school later, having completed a kindergarten phase, have higher levels of both educational attainment and emotional wellbeing.
“The school starting age was set by the Westminster parliament in the nineteenth century when they were deciding what age to start compulsory education,” Palmer says. “It was not an educational decision, it was more about child protection because there were so many children who were on the loose because their mothers needed to be at work in a factory. The idea was to get them into school as quickly as possible.
“All the evidence shows that until the age of around seven or eight, you shouldn’t be thinking in terms of age-related standards in children’s education.”
Research shows structured play can aid literacy and numeracy learning | Credit: Alamy Stock
Campaigners have long looked to Finland as an example of how a more enlightened approach to education can reap rewards. Children there receive early years education in state-funded day care centres and complete a pre-school year before formal schooling begins at the age of seven. In the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), the international comparison carried out by the OECD, Finland and Estonia were consistently among the best European performers in a league table dominated by Asian states such as China, Singapore and Japan.
Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educationalist based at Southern Cross University in New South Wales, Australia, says that what matters is not the age a child begins school but when the formal education stage begins and what comes before it.
“It doesn’t make any sense just to say that school starts at the age of six and then the pre-school stage at age five is the same as what P1 is now,” he says. “Kindergarten should be about making sure each and every child is ready for formal instruction and that’s often where the gaps between pupils are the biggest.
“It’s very important that kindergarten will help those kids who need to catch up – not in literacy and numeracy but in their readiness for the classroom. That’s exactly what the Finnish system is doing.”
While Curriculum for Excellence has its admirers, much of the conversation around the Scottish education system has been around a perceived diminishing of standards under the SNP, much of it focusing on the Scottish Government’s failure to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap.
Those in favour of raising the school starting age argue that by introducing a statutory kindergarten phase before formal schooling begins, it would allow all children – regardless of background – to be properly prepared for learning to read and write.
But Lindsay Paterson, a professor of education policy at the University of Edinburgh, says raising the school starting age, while not without its benefits, would not be “nearly enough” to address some of the issues in Scottish schooling.
“The key thing about all the research which shows the importance of structured play is that it’s there as a preliminary to structured knowledge,” he says. “The argument is that people will better learn to do multiplication and to spell and understand grammar if they’d have this two or three years of structured play. But the goal is to improve structured learning, knowledge and systematic enquiry.”
Paterson says there are deeper problems with the curriculum, which he says has seen Scotland go backwards in comparison with other countries.
“Some people have a rose-tinted view of the curriculum while others will condemn it out of hand. Scotland is not doing too badly – it’s about average by international standards. But I really don’t think average is a sufficient standard; we should be aiming to improve things,” he says.
“We’re not stretching the most able students far enough and we’re still doing nowhere near well enough in vocational education. In fact, we’re pretty abysmal at that. Anecdotally, I also hear from colleagues in universities that students coming from Scottish schools are increasingly weak compared with those coming from outside the UK but also students coming with A-levels. Scotland is not doing disastrously badly, but it’s not doing particularly well either.”
While campaigners talk of introducing structured play, the government has pressed ahead with controversial standardised assessments in P1, despite the Scottish Parliament voting to pause the tests. In 2018, MSPs voted in favour of halting the Scottish National Standardised Assessments following complaints from teachers about their value and from parents about the stress the tests were putting on their children.
Education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville has come under pressure over P1 testing | Credit: Alamy
But in response to a recent parliamentary question from the Lib Dems, education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said there were “no plans” to discontinue the assessments which are “compatible with a play-based approach to learning,” according to a report carried out on behalf of the government in 2019 by David Reedy, general secretary of the United Kingdom Literacy Association.
Reedy’s report found what it called “strong examples” of schools that operated a play-based approach to learning and found “no incompatibility” between that and the P1 tests. The report also said there was “scant evidence” of children becoming upset while taking the assessments.
Sahlberg, who is currently working as an adviser to the Scottish Government, says he is supportive of assessment that is done for the benefit of teachers and pupils and not simply as a data-gathering exercise.
“I’m all in favour of that sort of formative assessment early on if it helps teachers to understand their students’ needs,” he says. “The type of formative assessment that helps people understand where they are and what needs to be done is welcome. But if we are talking about old-school standardised testing where data is collected from kids and goes to the education department and used to compare schools etc, I think P1 is far too early to do that.”
It was the work of Upstart Scotland which inspired the successful motion at the SNP conference. Palmer says her organisation will continue to campaign for a “change of ethos” in early years education which sees children start formal schooling later, with more focus on play.
“We have the poverty-related attainment gap; a third of our kids now have additional support needs; and the mental health issues in children and young people are just escalating beyond anything anyone can cope with,” she says.
Much of the focus on Scottish education in recent years has been on the exams sat by school leavers and the gap in literacy and numeracy skills between those from poor and more affluent backgrounds. But Palmer says we’ve missed something crucial – the way children learn from day one of their school careers.
“In the education system, we’re a bit snobby about early years; we don’t think it’s important,” she says. “In fact, when you start looking at developmental science, which has really exploded over the past 20 years, it’s the most important bit. It’s where you set the foundation for lifelong learning and wellbeing, and if you get that wrong, it’s going to have long-term consequences.”