MOST five-year-olds appear to know they are in a particular reading or maths group because of their abilities, suggesting that early setting in the basics can hit pupil motivation and self-esteem from the first months in P1.
Teachers are also pretty confident children are aware that their group placement is down to evaluation and ranking but parents are less certain, a small-scale but in-depth study by Stirling University researchers reveals.
Even in P1, teachers' views of attainment in reading vary widely. What is good or average in one school is not in another, a finding that underlines the Scottish Executive's current drive to improve assessment techniques and produce more robust evidence.
Christine Stephen and Peter Cope of the university's Institute of Education studied 27 children transferring from nursery school to primary and found that children were able to explain about being grouped for particular activities, especially reading.
They recognised it was the teacher who made decisions about being allocated to groups and that group membership could change.
Some children felt they were placed in groups to prevent misbehaviour, such as chatting or copying, while others said it was down to organisation, such as the need to ensure enough books.
"However, 11 children referred (accurately) to the evaluative judgments made by their teachers (eg that one group was better at sums than others, that another group was the 'highest' for reading)," the researchers report.
Children have clear ideas about the explicit set of rules, sanctions and rewards that come with primary school. Most were able to recite a list of class rules and, despite their teachers' efforts to engage them in discussions about behaviour, saw the rules as imposed and non-negotiable.
Teachers believed that nursery classes offer the best preparation for P1.
"This preference appeared to arise from concerns about behaviour, rather than learning or attainment," the Stirling researchers say.
Some teachers referred to the "negative legacy" from pre-school if children wanted to choose resources or "enjoy the freedom from structure and time constraints" they were used to. There was some "tension" between teachers and pupils because of the order required in P1 classrooms.
One teacher commented that pupils had a different kind of relationship in nursery. Some found it difficult getting used to one person speaking and "the fact that the teacher can't always be there to pay attention to them when they have 20 other children to look after".
The study throws up significant transition problems between pre-school and P1, similar to the misunderstandings and difficulties between P7 and S1.
The researchers describe several "discontinuities", not least the failure by primary teachers to acknowledge the learning children bring to P1 through the established curriculum framework for 3-5s.
Nursery staff and primary teachers tend to view progress differently, with nursery staff regarding pre-school education as a stage in its own right, not merely preparation for school. Transition records were often ignored.
"Teachers lacked confidence in the information passed on from pre-school practitioners and made only limited use of the material available," the research notes.
Some teachers had details about a child from one pre-school provider but not from another that had been part of the child's all-day provision. "In some cases, a child's teacher was unaware that he or she behaved differently when playroom circumstances varied," the researchers say.
Most children made a smooth transition, although some had difficulties.
"There was no clear relationship between the nature of children's pre-school experience and the ease with which they transferred to school.
Being able to separate easily from parents while at pre-school did not necessarily mean that a child entered school without difficulty."
"Moving On to Primary 1: An Exploratory Study of the Experience of Transition from Pre-School to Primary" is published by the Scottish Executive in its Insight series.