SCOTTISH ministers who want to change the ethos of primary one and introduce less formal teaching methods will not necessarily be able to draw any firm conclusions from a comparative study of six-year-olds in England, Finland and Denmark carried out by inspectors south of the border.
The two Scandinavian countries both start school at seven after pre-school classes in kindergarten and believe that children are better prepared for formal education by concentrating on socialising five to seven-year-olds.
England, like Scotland, starts work on the basics of literacy and numeracy far earlier and goes further by national testing of seven-year-olds.
At the age of six, English pupils are ahead in literacy and numeracy but international surveys show Finland coming out top of the league tables when 15-year-olds are tested on knowledge and skills in reading, mathematics and science. England follows not far behind, while Denmark is well off the pace.
But young Finns and Danes are far better behaved and teachers have less of a struggle with classes, which in Finland are down to around 12 per class.
Denmark is similar to England at nearly 23. Scottish ministers have pledged to cut classes in P1 to a maximum of 25.
For many, Finland and Denmark may seem like an educational nirvana since both countries have virtually no national testing or performance targets, no baseline assessment and teachers can more or less plan the curriculum as they like. Finland has no inspection system at all.
Without a hint of self-interest, English inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education caution against reading too much into international comparisons because of the differences in cultures. Denmark's modest showing in the international league tables is raising questions about its practice. Finland is said to use its premier status to endorse its system.
In Scotland, the Liberal Democrats pressed in their Holyrood election campaign for delaying the start of school by a year to mimic practice in Scandinavia and settled for something less in the partnership agreement with Labour. Ministers then pledged to investigate more flexibility in the curriculum for three to six-year-olds, a change in ethos in P1, less formal teaching methods and early professional intervention where it is needed.
"Work on implementing this commitment is ongoing and it will be considered as part of the review of the curriculum," a spokeswoman said this week.
The latest comparative European evidence will find echoes north of the border since schools in England spend half their time on literacy and numeracy, even when pupils are in their first formal year of primary.
Teachers complain that the demands of the set curriculum, and increased accountability through national testing and inspection, force them down a narrower route and into grouping children according to ability.
Intriguigingly, the inspectors note that English inspection evidence since 1978 shows "consistently" that primary children achieving the highest standards of literacy and numeracy do so "in the context of a broad and balanced curriculum".
In contrast to the current English position, one Danish headteacher told the researchers that children at the age of six "are allowed to be children for one year" in their pre-school settings. There is no grouping by ability.
In Denmark and Finland, the emphasis is on personal and social education, learning to learn and preparation for school, although the countries produce quite different outcomes in performance by the age of 15.
The inspectors report that Danish and Finnish staff focus in their literacy work on speaking and listening, whereas the emphasis in England is on reading and writing.
Referring to English practice, the HM inspectors state: "There was little evidence, however, of the teaching of speaking and listening in any of the lessons. These are intrinsic to successful literacy and numeracy, as well as being of critical importance to effective learning in their own right."
Teachers and parents in England, the HMI reports, were often anxious about the balance of the curriculum and the lack of time for creativity, play and discussion. Danish staff talked about collaborative learning, environmentally-conscious habits and routines and healthy eating.
One Finnish teacher summed up the difference by emphasising that six-year-olds should learn to read for themselves rather than being taught reading.
"Most strikingly, children regularly spent time out of school. One centre's six-year-olds had an out-of-school day every week and children in all the Finnish settings made fortnightly trips in school time to the local municipal library," the HMI reveal.
But it was rare for English children to venture out.
Leader, page 13 "The education of six-year-olds in England, Denmark and Finland" can be found on the Ofsted website, www.ofsted.gov.uk
Danish and Finnish classrooms were "not preoccupied by discipline and control" as they are in England and "the willinglyco-operative behaviour of most of the children demonstrated why in the Danish and Finnish settings the classroom climate was consistently more calm and relaxed than in many of theEnglish classrooms," the HMI report.
"The children complied with what was expected of themwithout obvious pressure from the teacher, and noise levels were lower."