Delaying the age at which children start school until 7 will help to give youngsters a “flying start”, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie has insisted.
As the first full week of campaigning for the Scottish Parliament elections began, the Lib Dems focused on their plans for education, with what they hailed as a “historical, radical and positive change” for Scotland’s school system.
They want youngsters to have a “truly play-based education” up to the age of 7 – at which point more formal schooling would begin.
Background: Could the school starting age be raised to 7?
2019 ACEL data: Literacy and numeracy statistics show modest gains
Raising the school starting age is also one of the Scottish Greens' key election plans.
Scottish Parliament election 2021: Lib Dems pledge to raise school starting age
The expanded early years education would be mandatory, the Lib Dems stressed, and would focus on areas such as child development, social skills and outdoor learning, as well as physical and mental health.
The shake-up of schooling would also involve controversial national assessments for P1 pupils being abolished.
Mr Rennie said: “At the forthcoming election, Scottish Liberal Democrats will ask voters to back us to put the education system first.
“Scottish Liberal Democrats will introduce a truly play-based education until age 7, to give every child a flying start.
“By learning together through play, children develop the skills needed for trickier tasks and are better prepared to shine in areas like literacy and numeracy.”
Mr Rennie added: “The UK is almost unique in Europe in expecting children as young as 4 or 5 to begin formal schooling. By the age of 9, pupils in Finland have much higher reading levels than pupils in the UK, having started at the age of 7.”
Mr Rennie promised that his party would also “immediately abolish the national testing of four- and five-year-olds introduced by the SNP and heavily criticised by teachers”.
Speaking about the standardised assessments, he said: “Parliament voted to halt them years ago but was ignored.
“The SNP claimed the support of world-leading experts for the controversial policy, only for those same experts to call it a ‘perverse misrepresentation’ of their work and conclude the tests were ‘completely useless’.”
Mr Rennie added: “Scottish Liberal Democrats will always be the party of education. It’s time for a historical, radical and positive change to improve our children’s future.
“Raising the starting age for formal schooling to 7 is an important part of our plans to make Scottish education the best again.”
Meanwhile, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has said that ending child poverty should be a national "mission statement" for the next Scottish Parliament.