Lesley Riddoch: Changing school age should be on MSPs radar

Talks last week looked at children beginning school at the age of seven, rather that five, writes Lesley Riddoch

Five is too young to begin formal education, according to modern  studies, which suggest seven is a better age. Picture: Alan Richardson
Five is too young to begin formal education, according to modern studies, which suggest seven is a better age. Picture: Alan Richardson

On a wet Monday night in a former mining village in Fife, something unusual happened.

More than 100 people – mostly young women – gathered to talk politics. Of course in post-indyref Scotland, such a large weekday night meeting is not unusual. But there was no mention of independence, the forthcoming Holyrood elections or any conventional political issue – and no MSPs were present. The meeting’s focus was education, but not teachers’ pay, the curriculum for excellence or even the vexatious attainment gap – at least not directly. This “hard to reach” group of mostly twenty and thirty-something women were discussing something far more revolutionary – a new school starting age of seven rather than five. Less school time, less formal education taught by adults, more unregulated play and more fun – and the idea is setting the heather alight all over Scotland.

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The educationist Sue Palmer has devised Upstart as a grassroots campaign for a later school age and a four-year kindergarten stage for all Scottish children as a way of undoing the “schoolification” that’s been a hallmark of British society since 1870 when the UK parliament chose an early school starting age so mothers could provide cheap labour in factories. The wisdom of starting school at five has been taken as gospel ever since.

Yet only 12 per cent of countries worldwide share British practice – all former parts of the British Empire. 66 per cent start school at age six and 22 per cent at age seven, including Finland, Estonia and Switzerland – the three most successful western nations in the most recent OECD international review – all of whom have a play-based kindergarten stage for three to seven-year-old children.

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The Scottish Government does have a National Play Strategy, launched in June 2013, which aims to make Scotland “a nation that values play as a life-enhancing daily experience for all children and young people in their homes, nurseries, schools and communities”. But there’s no statutory duty on councils to provide that play, and faced with £500 million cuts next year, it’s hardly surprising that most councils view play as an optional extra – the expendable item in a tough, competitive world where employability and the three ‘R’s are top priorities. Yet ironically, all the evidence shows the skills most valued by employers (and least likely to be replaced by technology) are soft skills – problem solving, team working, communication and social confidence. In the most successful nations these skills are acquired in the relatively leisurely, play-oriented and outdoors environment of kindergarten – not in the formal, indoors seried ranks of the classroom. Yet in Scotland, despite recent advances providing childcare for two-to-four-year-olds in the most deprived areas, there’s been no questioning of the deep-seated belief that school must start at five and that children cannot have spelling, reading, writing and controlled behavior drummed into them early enough. This simply flies in the face of nature.

A letter to the UK government signed by around 130 early childhood education experts in 2013 advocated a delay to the start of formal “schooling”. According to signatory David Whitbread of Cambridge University: “Anthropological studies of children’s play in hunter-gatherer societies have identified play as an adaptation which evolved in early human social groups. It enabled humans to become powerful learners and problem-solvers. Neuroscientific studies have shown that playful activity leads to synaptic growth, particularly in the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for all the uniquely human higher mental functions.”

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In short, if you stifle play you stunt personal growth – indeed evidence suggests children don’t learn how to regulate behaviour until the age of seven. That’s why most countries whose systems aren’t mired in 18th century thinking, start formal education at that age. Scotland talks the language of play, but remains firmly wedded to what’s ae been, with disastrous results. Durham and York university academics recently found Scottish pupils from the most deprived areas are 14 months behind their more affluent peers when they reach primary school.

No amount of national testing will wish away that gap. And whilst a more equal society is the main solution, a move away from early “schoolification” may be equally important. Evidence suggests children taught literacy skills from the age of five do no better in the long run than those who start at seven. On the other hand, an early start at school is linked to social, emotional and mental health problems in many children forced into formal learning before they are ready.

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So many parents are aware of this that thousands already exercise the right to defer their children from starting school for an extra year – sometimes in the face of professional opposition and always in the knowledge no affordable childcare will be available. That’s why we need a formal change of policy so public money is invested quite differently between the ages of four and seven.

So why isn’t a later school starting age on the political agenda?

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Partly because it rocks the boat. But mostly because even progressive politicians fear voter reaction to the tabloid backlash that would inevitably follow a move away from our rigid, top-down system of schooling. Yet that is also why reform would be transformational.

Parents, newspaper editors, teachers, politicians and wider society would have to decide if Scottish education should be based on modern evidence or what’s ae been. Change would require a collective and empowering act of faith in the innate ability of children to blossom if supported not restricted. It would also signal the end of our panicky spoon-fed approach to learning – the product of centuries of o’er early formal schooling.

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Above all, Scots would have to embrace the hard truth that less (intervention) is more (productive). That “less is more” outlook has always been hard for Scots to really embrace. Generations of inequality and poverty have created a grabby society because opportunities are all too often here today but gone tomorrow. This compulsive need to seize the flo’er, though, means the blossom is often shed – to paraphrase the bard. Eagerly stuffing education into five year-old brains may be understandable – but it’s not rational, helpful or kind.

Thanks to the Upstart campaign all this has been exercising minds in village halls across Scotland. With 99 days to go though, shouldn’t it be the stuff of a Scottish election debate too?