The age at which children start school should be raised to 7, the Scottish Liberal Democrats have said.
This “historic change” to the education system would mean that until that age children would have a “truly play-based” education, the Lib Dems propose.
School starting age: Could it be raised to 7?
Research: What age should children start school?
The issue is being raised in the Scottish Parliament today after the Scottish Liberal Democrats' leader, Willie Rennie, used his party conference speech on Saturday to call for every available teacher to have a guaranteed job, in a bid to cut class sizes and boost learning after the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic.
In Scotland, children usually start primary school when they are 4 or 5, but Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Beatrice Wishart said this practice dated back to the Victorian era.
Raising school starting age 'would help make Scottish education the best again'
She insisted that raising the starting age for formal school education was “an important part of our plans for the next Parliament to make Scottish education the best again”.
Ms Wishart will use a Holyrood debate to set out the party’s “commitment to making education truly play-based until the age of 7”.
Ms Wishart insisted that early education will “still be mandatory” under the Lib Dems' proposals, but would “focus on child development, social skills, outdoor learning and physical and mental health”.
She said: “Countries excelling in education and equity show that this approach better prepares children to shine in literacy and numeracy.
“They might start a bit later but they quickly surge past us. By learning together through play, children develop the critical skills needed for better long-term development and outcomes. I want Scotland’s children to get the same long-term benefits.”
Ms Wishart added: “The best way to close the attainment gap is not to open it in the first place.
“The Victorians didn’t give us the best way to start school. Now we have the SNP conducting national testing of four- and five-year-olds against the will of Parliament.”
A Scottish government spokesperson said there were no plans to increase the school starting age.
She said: “We want Scotland to be the best place to grow up and have almost doubled the entitlement to high-quality, funded early learning and childcare to 1,140 hours from this August – a transformational policy that will benefit children and families, with quality of children’s experiences and supporting wellbeing at its heart.
“Scotland’s curriculum is already rooted in play for the early years, with a strong focus on ensuring all children benefit from rich outdoor learning experiences. We have no plans to change the school starting age.”
Sue Palmer, chair of Upstart Scotland group that campaigns to raise the school starting age, said: "All the evidence shows that introducing relationship-centred, play-based education for this age-group (with the emphasis on outdoor learning) is the single most effective step Scotland can take to achieve excellence and equity in education, as well as the long-term health and well-being of our children.
"Psychologists have now linked the horrifying rise in mental health problems among children and young people to the decline of active, outdoor, social play, especially in the early years. Health and wellbeing must therefore be the first consideration for the under-sevens.
"Any child showing an interest in literacy, maths, etc would of course be encouraged and supported during a kindergarten stage. But there is no reason why formal teaching of these subjects should begin at five, and much evidence that it is damaging for some children."
There have also been, however, some sceptical responses to the Lib Dems' move. One literacy consultant tweeted: "Before you get on the bandwagon, please be sure you realise what you are really signing up for. (Literacy/reading only for those that can or 'show an interest'.) Literacy should never be withheld. Every child has a right to be taught to read & access the world of books."
And a university educator tweeted: "In Finland & Scandinavia, however, almost every child attends (free) Kindergarten from age 2, when maternity leave ends. Effectively, they have a whole extra phase of education, staffed by valued, educated professionals. It's an earlier start, not a later one."