WHEN to start compulsory education and what to teach the youngest children remain hot topics. South of the border almost all evidence to MPs on a select committee inquiry has been in favour of delaying the statutory starting age (TESS, July 28).
For pre-school children the recommended Scottish curriculum emphasises the role of play in laying the foundations of literacy and numeracy. That approach was widely acclaimed by pre-school experts in England, but the supposed desirability of embarking on more formal learning continues to be a pressure on many under-fives.
Yet some independent schools do not follow the dictates of either the national curriculum in England or the early stages of the 5-14 guidelines. One such is the 60-year-old Edinburgh Rudolf Steiner School which, in common with more than 800 Steiner and Waldorf schools worldwide, does not start to teach pupils to read and write until they are at least six. They are expected to have mastered these skills by the age of eight or nine.
Teacher Philip Shinton says: "We teach the child to master physical skills before the abstract. The mind is woken up through the body. They concentrate on practical and artistic activities - nimble fingers make nimble minds.
"Rather tan rushing headlong into the three Rs we have the child involved in imagination. In doing this we prepare a good soil for subsequent academic activity to take root."
Exam results appear to bear this out. Last year the Edinburgh Steiner School was well up the all-Scotland league table of Highers passes in independent schools, with a success rate of more than
84 per cent. Independent schools in general outshine local authority counterparts (page one).
Gordon Reynolds, who teaches mathematics and chemistry in the upper school, says: "The school's success with its examination results is a credit to the hard work of pupils and their teachers. But it is also an endorsement of our educational approach and further testimony to our policy of not pushing academic work at too early an age."
Before the summer holidays, two groups of 15-year-old pupils from the school came first equal in the annual competition at Edinburgh University's civil and environmental engineering department, beating schools from around Scotland to construct a support structure for an elevated canal by using 500 plastic drinking straws and two rolls of sticky tape.
Mr Shinton said: "That sums our pupils up - imaginative, flexible, practical."