Primary teachers in East Ayrshire are ditching the emphasis on basics and turning to more play and creativity in the first year of school. They say too many children are forced into formal learning far too early, a move that can accentuate division.
Staff in four pilot schools, which serve disadvantaged communities, had become disenchanted by the rigidity of the formal curriculum in P1 and are now putting the joy back into teaching.
"If we had made these changes 10 years ago, I would look 20 years younger today," Doris Allan, of New Farm primary in Kilmarnock, says.
The project runs against the grain of early intervention with its emphasis on mastering core skills as early as possible in an attempt to close the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged and ensure a flying start. But the emerging practice is not out of line with the Scottish Executive's partnership agreement, struck last May, which pledged to introduce more flexibility for 3-6s.
Pressure from the Liberal Democrats has ensured a commitment to introduce "less formal teaching methods" but ministers have been strangely silent on how they are going to do it, placing the issue firmly on the back burner.
East Ayrshire has pulled in senior researchers from Glasgow University to help raise attainment in a quite different fashion to recent early intervention strategies, many of which have failed to narrow the gap for many pupils.
Louise Hayward of the university's education faculty said: "There is evidence that too formal learning at too early a stage is unlikely to result in success for all young learners."
One teacher told researchers of a boy who was trying to write with "fingers like a bunch of bananas".
Marion McLean, head of Patna primary, said: "Kids are coming to P1 with different nursery experiences and at different stages of development and we were having to identify them as more or less able far too early. This project started off with us talking about closing the gap, but, in a way, that push we were giving the kids early on was causing the gap."
Nationally, primary heads report that play, activity learning and creativity have suffered because of the number of 5-14 subjects which have to be taught, even in the early years.
Kay Hall, president of the Association of Head Teachers in Scotland, said the major concern of early years teachers was that the curriculum was far too demanding and hampered their ability to address individual needs. "Does anyone remember 'reading readiness' and how quickly reading is promoted and learnt once the child is ready to learn. Maturity and motivation are key factors," Mrs Hall said.
"P1 teachers are in the business of developing confidence and security in the more formal learning process and require the time and flexibility to be able to do so. Surely some of the curriculum could be taught later in the child's life. Introducing skills, concepts and information too early can have a detrimental affect - children can become confused, lose confidence and develop ways of covering up."
The East Ayrshire initiative chimes with the approach of Children in Scotland organisation which has been pressing for Scotland to model other European countries by starting formal learning at six or seven.
Bronwen Cohen, Children in Scotland's chief executive, commented: "Play offers many opportunities for children to learn at their own pace and time and is in keeping with developing the whole-child approach to education.
The national debate on education challenged us to consider when, where and how children learn and it is heartening to see this kind of response."
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