SCOTTISH children should start school at the age of four to ensure those from poorer backgrounds begin on an equal footing with their better-off peers, a new report states.
The study by the Scotland Institute, an independent think-tank, calls for universal pre-school education to be provided by councils in existing primary schools.
It notes that under the current regime some children from poorer backgrounds are already falling behind wealthier classmates by the time they start formal education.
Mirroring a system already adopted in Ireland, four-year-olds would follow a play-based curriculum, helping ease the transition from nursery to school. Crucially, the system would mean all children beginning their first year of primary school would do so on an equal basis, the report said.
Written by Azeem Ibrahim, the think-thank’s executive chair, the report says the current system, which allows local authorities to “commission” pre-school care from private providers, is not working.
“By creating universal provision at age four, we can ensure equity of provision and remove some of the barriers to educational achievement by giving this age group a head start,” Ibrahim said.
“There is plenty of evidence from other countries that this can significantly reduce future social problems and can help level the playing field for low-income children.”
Children in Scotland currently start school between four and five years old, depending on when their birthday falls, which is already one of the youngest starting ages in Europe.
The think-tank’s report contradicts previous studies which called for children to start primary aged six or seven, as in Scandinavia and Finland, a world leader in education
Last year, think-tank Play Scotland was among 130 agencies which signed an open letter calling for children to be kept out of formal education until seven, giving them more time to “learn through play”.
But according to the Scotland Institute’s report, there is a “deep-seated” problem with children from poorer households having fallen behind their counterparts by the time they reach school age, due to access to nursery education.
While parents are entitled to 475 hours of free nursery, with a proposal for this to be extended to 600 hours, studies have shown many think 1,000 hours would still fail to meet their needs.
Ibrahim, a former fellow at Harvard and Yale universities, suggests following Ireland’s Early Start programme – a one-year initiative for three and four-year-olds in disadvantaged areas, which uses empty classrooms in primary schools to help prepare children for formal education.
His report claims there is a “substantial under-usage” of the Scottish primary school estate, which could accommodate a further 100,000 pupils – about 5,000 more than the number of pre-school children. The study claims 21 per cent of Scottish primaries are at less than 50 per cent capacity.
While the problem is particularly acute in rural areas, there is also “substantial” spare capacity in cities, with 17 per cent of primary schools in Glasgow, for example, having fewer than half of their notional student numbers.
Dr Ibrahim added: “We recommend local councils cease to commission childcare and instead provide it within our primary schools, to ensure that there are long-term educational benefits for four-year-olds instead of simply providing low-cost childminding.
“There has been an imbalance between the needs of the labour market to have parents return to work and the needs of children to have a good start in life. Our report makes it clear that the provision of high-quality early childcare and education will reduce child poverty in the long run.”
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, the largest teaching union, gave the report a cautious welcome, but rejected the idea of schooling beginning at age four.
“The EIS is very much in favour of a statutory right to pre-school nursery for all three and four-year-olds as part of the 3-18 curriculum and for that to be delivered by registered teachers,” he said.
“The suggestion of utilising spare capacity in primary schools has considerable merit. However, any suggestion of pupils starting primary school at age four would be much more problematic. If there was a proposal for commencement of formal education with the type of overlay we have seen in England, where pre-fives have faced assessments and testing, the EIS would be very much opposed. International evidence suggests such an early start to formal school-based education is not in most children’s best interests, and that instead early exposure to education should be in a nursery or kindergarten setting, with appropriate teacher input to shape opportunities for learning through play.”
Last month, First Minister Alex Salmond said more than a quarter of two-year-olds would get 600 hours’ free nursery a year as part of a £114 million family support package of extra childcare.
The extension of provision goes some way towards the pledge in the White Paper to effectively introduce universal childcare in Scotland after independence. Under SNP plans, all children from the age of one would get 1,100 hours – the equivalent of a primary school week in nursery care – within a decade of a Yes vote.
However, teaching unions complain the number of qualified teachers in nurseries has plummeted in recent years. Figures in December showed more than a quarter of Scottish nursery pupils have no input from qualified teachers.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Many Scottish pupils already start school aged four where their parents feel that is right for them and Curriculum for Excellence is now in place and covers the ages of three to 18, including nurseries.”
THE FINNISH EXAMPLE
THE Finnish education system is widely acknowledged as producing high-quality outcomes and meeting social expectations of equality of opportunity at all stages.
Young children do not commence formal schooling until they are seven, although many attend a year of pre-school education from six.
The key to the Finnish approach to early years education is high-quality childcare that is available once the lengthy period of formal maternity/paternity leave is completed.
The various forms of pre-school education are focused on child development and are child centred rather than driven by formal attainment targets. As an approach it is perhaps best summarised as allowing the child space to develop his or her independence but with a degree of monitoring against expected targets.
A key organising block in this system is the local authority, which is required to ensure equity of services to all children regardless of their family background. All staff involved must have completed secondary education and one-third must have an appropriate bachelors degree.
If the provision is private, then there are clear requirements and training for anyone offering this service.
Running across all these arrangements is a core set of principles: promotion of personal wellbeing, reinforcement of considerate behaviour and actions towards others, gradually building up autonomy.
A key part of this is the provision of subsidised day care for all children who wish to attend. While most parents pay something, the cost is heavily subsidised for low-income families.
The Finnish approach to early years education is rooted in a wide range of family support systems, responsibility of the state for its citizens and that access is based on citizenship rather than social insurance or meeting narrow categories.
Consequently, Finland’s Ministry of Social Affairs and Health ensures an interconnected leave, subsidised childcare provision, family leave, child welfare clinics and family.
It is within this framework that the approach to early years education should be understood, not as an isolated policy area.