I'm a huge advocate of the move towards play-based learning in P1 classrooms (where children are typically aged 5 but may start school aged 4) across Scotland recently. I've seen the impact first-hand, as my son has thrived on it. However, it's no panacea.
Yes, much of the day is spent in self-directed activities like in the nursery settings these youngsters have just come from, which no doubt makes their transition and settling in easier. But despite talented teaching staff who know how to develop children as they play and regardless of the creative use of space and resources, some will still not cope and would benefit from a further year of early learning and childcare in order to thrive a year later.
Let’s take Jimmy, who has just started P1 and is engrossed and imaginative with his Lego models during “zone time”. Sadly, he will still at some point each day be dragged away to be mind-numbed with phonics, which he has no interest in yet (and which research shows there's no advantage to starting before the age of 7) so that he can work towards achieving certain benchmarks by the end of the year.
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His classmate Anya, usually so content role-playing with friends all morning, struggles to stay still and concentrate on her daily 3Rs instruction – she doesn't want to sit at a desk and use a pencil to attempt to spell certain words correctly.
School starting age
Lots of children are ready and happy to do these things, but we have an ingrained cultural attitude, normalised by our historically early school starting age, that all children can and should be doing them by 4 or 5. This is sadly misguided, and around 1,100 parents in Scotland each year agree with me as they apply for a funded deferral year at nursery (about 900 of which are usually successfully granted).
Developmental psychology research and neuroscientific studies show that, until age 7 or 8, children develop at different rates and that some will not be ready to tackle Curriculum for Excellence literacy and numeracy early level outcomes at age 4 or 5. Across the world, 88 per cent of countries don’t start formally teaching these things till age 6 or 7, and many have better attainment and wellbeing down the line.
Scotland's education secretary, John Swinney, contends that “implementation of Curriculum for Excellence early level and good transition arrangements should make the journey from early learning and childcare into primary education seamless and minimise the need for school deferral”. This is not true for all children.
Parents who choose to defer their four-year-olds (which they have a legal right to do in Scotland but councils can refuse funding for a further year of nursery) do so for a variety of social, emotional, behavioural and cognitive reasons. I have spent almost a year coordinating the Give Them Time campaign, and not once has a parent raised the issue of solely being concerned about “transition” to P1.
The government’s position is out of synch with that of parents because children’s primary caregivers have their long-term best interests at heart, whereas those in power have to balance good intentions with breaking even and being able to measure impact in the space of a term in office. That’s why I think there is no appetite to intervene and regulate local councils’ polarised practices which vary from ticking a box in one part of Scotland to guarantee continued nursery funding, to a plethora of professionals in another part debating every individual family's application.
John Swinney also expects “local authorities to make this [funding] decision based on an assessment of wellbeing”. Well, I have a panacea solution which could ensure the child’s wellbeing is at the very centre of such decisions as well as being an efficiency saving for councils: leave it to the experts on each child – their parents.
Patricia Anderson is the founder of the Give Them Time campaign, which seeks automatic continued nursery funding for all four-year-olds whose parents want to take up the legal right to defer a child's P1 start. There will be a Scottish Parliament members’ debate on the campaign on Wednesday 1 May