Six steps to a successful system

30th January 2009 at 00:00
Education must work with parents and communities if performance in the early years is to improve. Emma Seith reports

Scotland has been too focused on what schools can do to improve early education, neglecting what happens in the home.

The country had a strong pre-school system, but there was a long tail of underachievement which started in the early years, said Don McGillivray, head of the early education and child care division of the Scottish Government. There could not be a "purely state solution" to this, he argued.

"This is not just about what goes on in schools or what social workers do," he told an Edinburgh early childhood education conference last week. "It's about parents and communities. Unless education is working with parents and communities, we are not going to change the outcome that we are seeking to."

He criticised the variation in the quality of Scotland's pre-school services, which was linked to the qualifications of workers in the different sectors - public, private or voluntary. While pre-school education was often hailed as the strongest part of the system when it came to A Curriculum for Excellence, he warned against complacency: "Rolling back that pressure to formalise early primary is a challenge."

Scotland had a strong tradition of universality. However, instead of the input being the same for everyone, the challenge was to achieve equality of output, Mr McGillivray said.

This suggestion, however, was shot down in flames by John Bennett, who recently retired from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development He branded it an unrealistic goal that would ultimately leave Scotland "depressed". He added: "Equity in outcomes is not going to happen. The Nordics talk about 'equivalence of outcomes'. All children are not going to go to university. They need to be in branches of education that lead to employment and a useful and happy life."

He identified six factors which led to countries developing successful early childhood education systems:

- equitable societies: "where every family is able to do all right and look after their children, you are more likely to have effective education systems";

- a recognition of the early childhood period as the foundation for adult health, well-being, socialisation and education: "children who have problems later on often could easily have been picked up in the early childhood sector";

- investment in government leadership and policy expertise in the field;

- providing families with services rather than cash benefits: "people learn from each other not from money";

- building parenting and family capacity: "often we forget that families are the first educators of children";

- the development of the children's workforce and a sound notion of early childhood pedagogy: "you need to have an appropriate pedagogy for young children. You need to know what it is you are trying to do."


One of Scotland's leading early years academics rejected calls for children to start school in Scotland aged six - a year later than they currently do.

Eric Wilkinson, professor of education at Glasgow University, argued that the P1 experience should be "informalised", making it more akin to nursery.

Scottish children enter school at a younger age than any in Europe.

In New Zealand, children start school on their fifth birthday, with the teacher gradually integrating more children into the class as the year progresses.

There has been little or no research into the impact of design on education before new schools are built, the conference heard.

Peter Tymms, professor of education at Durham University, said: "These buildings could turn out to be mistakes in the long run. Where are the studies that say this space inspires this behaviour and teachers to work this way? I would like to make a plea for this missing arm of design."

Christine Stephen, of the Stirling Institute of Education, agreed there was a "research deficit".

Paul Stallan, education champion at Architecture and Design Scotland, said councils lacked the expertise to build schools. ADS had "begged" councils not to go ahead with some, but authorities were concerned with just two things: that buildings last and keep pupils dry, he said.

Uncertainty surrounding the Scottish Futures Trust had blown a two-year hole in public-sector building at the worst possible time, he added. "We are not doing any housing work or office work," he said. "It's tumbleweed across Scotland. The public sector has to step up to keep the economy going."

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