Six degrees of change

1st August 2003 at 01:00
Jim Wallace, the Deputy First Minister, seized an idea from the fringes when before the May elections he advocated reforming the first year of primary and emulating Scandinavian practice, where they start formal school later. It was suggested children are better prepared for learning the basics when they are older and after they have been involved in extensive socialisation through kindergarten.

The results from the international comparison of six-year-olds in England, Finland and Denmark do not justify further major upheaval, although they do open up questions about our infant classrooms and how staff interact with children. They might, for example, spend more time talking to children and less on actual reading and writing. Or they might not. As the inspectors say, the real test is not whether the reading skills of six-year-olds in England are ahead or behind their peers abroad, but where the different versions of the curriculum lead in terms of developing a child's abilities and attitudes and how they affect later outcomes.

Scottish primaries, unlike their English counterparts, have not been under pressure to ease back on the P1 curriculum or offer a different focus for introducing the basics in literacy and numeracy. In fact, teachers have taken readily to the revamped early intervention strategies and have repeatedly taken the lead in revised approaches. We have made substantial progress. For an authority such as West Dunbartonshire to claim, as it did in June, it will have eradicated illiteracy within four years will be a remarkable achievement for the Scottish system. If anything, teachers appear to want a focus on the basics and less of what many see as more marginal impositions.

We do not want to be Gradgrinds or mechanical learners within narrow curriculum confines but we appear to be doing something right. Scotland, like England, has significant deprivation unparalleled in the Scandinavian countries and we have a large tail of pupils who struggle. We need different approaches to raising achievement and attainment and we should not forget that.

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