Some parents want pupils to start full time from the first day of school. Some educators say children need time to adapt to more formal teaching and half-days until half-term are better. Meanwhile, the Scottish Executive wants more learning through play in P1. Glasgow is weighing up the arguments, writes Elizabeth Buie
The first day at school is probably the biggest milestone in a child's life. It can hold excitement, apprehension, even terror for the new pupil, pride, hope and tears for the parent, and trepidation mixed with enthusiasm for the P1 teacher.
Around the country, questions are being asked about how schools should organise the first weeks of Primary 1.
Glasgow City Council is the latest education authority to hold a wide consultation on the starting hours for the new entry of 4- and 5-year-olds.
It is asking parents, staff at primary schools and pre-five establishments, and school boards whether they think the stage when children go full-time to school should be moved.
At the moment, children attend P1 for mornings only until after the October half-term holiday. Other options are to start full time from the first day of the session, after a one-week induction period or after the September long weekend break.
The last consultation on the full-time start for P1 pupils was in 1997, when 66 per cent of parents and teachers were in favour of the current arrangement. Since then, however, there have been significant changes not only in early years education but also in social patterns.
The latest Scottish Executive figures, for January 2004, show that there was 100 per cent uptake of nursery places among 4-year-olds and 85 per cent for three-year-olds. Although the majority of children go to nursery for a half-day session, increasing numbers are attending full-time at either private nurseries or local authority nurseries (with parents paying for the additional hours).
Glasgow City Council says that some parents, trying to juggle childcare arrangements with working lives, have asked for a review of the full-time start date.
The question has to be asked: is it fair to provide pre-5 education and childcare, sometimes from 8am to 6pm, and then tell parents that when their child starts school it will be only until 12.15pm for the first two months and that they must provide childcare for the afternoons?
The changes are being proposed at a time when Glasgow's pre-12 strategy has the stated aim of creating a one-stop shop approach to assist parents.
Eleanor Coner, information officer for the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, backs the idea of a full-day start from the beginning of P1, arguing that changing from a half-day to a full-day is more confusing and disruptive for the children.
"Family life is changing. More people are going back to work and mothers and fathers are being encouraged, or ordered in some situations, to go to work. You just have to change things to allow for that," she says.
However, the issue has the potential to pit parents against teachers, who argue that a delayed full-time start offers the best educational development of the child.
The Scottish Executive, in its Partnership Agreement, setting its policy objectives, says that it wants to make the first year of primary school a more informal learning environment. An Executive spokeswoman says: "It has been proved that the approaches to pre-school education have been successful and there is a feeling that a move towards more play and less formal methods of teaching would benefit this age group and will help the transition from nursery to primary."
One argument is that if P1 was more like nursery and less like the more formal desk-bound upper school, then children would find their entry into primary less tiring and stressful.
Christine Higgison, Glasgow's head of primary schools, says she is very interested in a pilot project carried out in East Ayrshire, and reported on by Glasgow University researchers Louise Hayward and Nicki Hedge, into encouraging a less rigid and more play-led first year in primary.
She is keen to explore how P1 teachers could use play or interactive learning to follow on from a lot of the good practice in the pre-5 sector.
Key differences remain, however, between nursery and P1. In nursery the adult:child ratio limit is 1:10 compared to 1:30 in the P1 classroom, and not all primary schools can provide the space for a less formal classroom setting.
Miss Higgison raises another aspect of the issue. "Glasgow City Council is concerned to raise attainment in children," she says. "If we have them for eight weeks of part-time education, are those weeks when they could have been having a more formal education on a full-time basis? Would that have helped in terms of raising attainment? It's just a question and I don't know the answer.
"When you go to other countries, children start their formal education aged 6 or 7. They get pre-school education before that. Do you raise attainment by bringing them in earlier or do you not?
"A lot of these souls coming from pre-5 are bright wee cookies. They are very independent, but their learning has been through play following the children's interests. When they come into P1 it is a much more formal curriculum. And the children can be in a class of 30, whereas in nursery they might have had three child development officers. How do they settle into that environment?
"They need an induction period, whether that is through making links while in pre-5 or at the start of the primary setting," says Miss Higgison.
One argument in favour of a full-day start is that teachers would not need to concentrate so much work into a short time. "If they have got all day from early on, then the day can be planned in a much less structured way to take account of the needs of the children and give them more opportunities for continuing on from 3-5," says Miss Higgison.
However, many children, even with nursery experience, still find the start of school exhausting. "The wee ones need a time to settle in, even during the half-days up to October. For the first couple of weeks you see the wee heads going down on the desk and they are falling asleep," she adds.
The Educational Institute of Scotland argues for retaining the status quo.
Susan Quinn, former chairperson of the Glasgow EIS association and a primary teacher, says: "The EIS, having talked to teachers about this issue, has said that having children in school for the full day right from the start is not necessarily the way to raise attainment.
"It is unfortunate that the authority flags it up as having come from parents as a childcare issue. It suggests that this consultation comes from that and not to raise attainment. They are saying that schools and nurseries are childcare facilities first and foremost. If that is what is driving it, that is wrong. It is not what we are about.
"I appreciate the difficulties that working parents have but if that is the driving force, then that is an inappropriate response," she says.
"Having spoken to P1 teachers, they feel that the children need a settling in period. There is a difference between what happens in nursery and primary."
Ms Quinn says she would welcome a more play-centred approach to P1, but that does not mean children should have to come in to school for longer periods sooner.
Liz Cullen, the senior teacher and co-ordinator in early child education at Glasgow University, believes the focus needs to be on what is in the best interests of the child rather than what suits parents, working or otherwise.
"There is an increasing move towards recognising that, under the pressure of national assessment testing and the fact that councils produce lists of children's attainment, perhaps the early education curriculum and focus on early intervention, with literacy and numeracy at the core, have affected the play-based curriculum much more than originally intended.
"When you consider that our children go to school younger than any other children in Europe and that they have two years of pre-school, perhaps we are becoming too concentrated on time as distinct from quality, and that is about children becoming independent learners and about learning underpinned by the view they build of themselves as capable, confident, successful learners.
"The issue for primary schools is not the issue of time but of the quality of experience the children have."
HOW P1 STARTS IN OTHER AUTHORITIES
In Glasgow, P1 children attend school for mornings only until after the October half-term holiday. Other local authorities have different strategies for starting full-time.
P1 children attend part-time for three weeks before going full-time. The lead-in used to be six weeks but it was shortened about three years ago.
Dumfries and Galloway
Children can go part-time for the first two weeks of school or full-time from the first day. The decision is between the parents and the school. All pupils go full time from week three. Until three years ago, children went part-time until the October break.
Since August 2003, P1 children have started full-time after the September long weekend rather than from the October break.
P1 children start full-time from the first day. This was introduced last year following consultation. Parents said their children were capable of this start because of their nursery experience. The council offered the option of going for half-days until the October break, but no parents took up this offer.
Headteachers have some discretion over full-day starts for P1s, but they must be full-time by the September long weekend break.
P1 children attend for mornings only for the first four weeks.
THE PARENTS' VIEW
Parents at Anderson Street Nursery in Partick, Glasgow, give their views on when to start full-time.
Narinder Kaur mother of Sumet, 4
"My daughter goes to nursery three days for a full day and two days for a half day. I think it would be better to go mornings only to school for a couple of months so that they can get used to it."
Laura Vickery mother of Lily, 4
"I'd like the council to keep the full-day start for P1 as it is now, in October.
"Sometimes Lily is in nursery full-time but usually it's only a half-day.
When she first came to nursery she found it quite traumatic, so I'd like her to have a gradual introduction to school.
"For working mothers, going full-time earlier would be better, but I think some of them want an easy answer to everything."
Elizabeth McKeown mother of Josh, 4
"I am working full-time. I would rather Josh went full-time to school straight from nursery and not have his routine broken (he attends nursery for full days). Josh has got slight learning difficulties at the moment and he doesn't like any break in his routine."
Debbie Mohammedi mother of Idris, 3
"For the first couple of weeks, they should take their time to let children settle in. I think October is too long to go part-time, though. I think the longer you give them, the longer they will take to settle."
Lynn Mooney mother of Aaron, 4
"I was pleasantly surprised to hear there were consultations.
"I think October is really too long. Aaron is in nursery full-time, as both me and my husband work full-time. I am keen that he continues full-time and as quickly as possible. It is a childcare issue. I am concerned that between August and October, having been used to a full-time routine, he will lose that. Routine is quite important to Aaron.
"He thoroughly enjoys coming to nursery full-time and there has been a huge difference in his confidence and communication since he came full-time.
"When I filled in the consultation form, I said I thought they should have a week to settle in. They might well be tired in August if they go full-time but it will be the same in October."
Sheldon Stewart father of twins Logan and Sheldon, 4
"I'd like them to go to school full-time from day one.
Otherwise you're back and forwards like a yoyo and I could get sent further afield for work. I've already moved them from the afternoon session to the morning session at nursery to get them into the pattern."