The Drive to close the attainment gap in English and maths could prevent schools from raising the formal starting age, council education directors have said.
Scotland’s fundamentally “conservative and conformist” education system could also prove to be a stumbling block to the proposals, made by campaigners calling for an emphasis on play in the early years of school.
John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education Scotland (ADES), said councils would “philosophically” be in favour of introducing a “kindergarten” stage before formal lessons start at age 7.
Curriculum for Excellence was flexible enough for councils to allow a play-based approach to the first few years in school, he said. But he added that government pressure to close the attainment gap would make it harder to make any radical changes.
Mr Stodter said: “Local authorities’ priority will be attainment and closing the gap. This will make them less likely to do something radical or creative or depart significantly from early reading and early numeracy skills.”
Philosophy vs government
He added that the National Improvement Framework – which will introduce standardised literacy and numeracy testing to Scottish primary and secondary schools next year – would make change less likely.
Mr Stodter added: “Philosophically, councils would support that notion [of a kindergarten phase from 3 to 7] but we have quite a conservative and conformist system and I think that’s probably going to increase with the National Improvement Framework.”
Mr Stodter’s comments came as a campaign to introduce a kindergarten phase for children aged 3-7 kicked off in Scotland last weekend. The initiative, called Upstart, was spearheaded by Sue Palmer, the author of the popular book Toxic Childhood: How The Modern World Is Damaging Our Children.
Campaigners believe that sedentary life-styles and a risk-adverse society mean young children are no longer getting the outdoor and play activities they need outside school to develop a good foundation for learning.
Upstart has the support of a number of big hitters including John Carnochan, co-founder of Glasgow’s Violence Reduction Unit, David Cameron, one of the architects of Curriculum for Excellence, and headteachers such as Willie French (see box, below).
They want children to have the same entitlement to schooling but for the ethos in the first two years to be different. They are opposed to the introduction of standardised tests in literacy and numeracy at primary level.
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, said that his members would be in favour of an extended early years experience, but warned against removing teachers from early primary.
Mr Flanagan said: “The issue of a delayed start to school has been raised by [local authorities’ body] Cosla in the past, partly with a view to saving money round reducing the number of teachers required to deliver the primary experience. We are completely opposed to the notion that we balance the budgets by delaying access to formal schooling. If, however, we are talking about a statutory right to a 3-7 kindergarten experience, that’s something worthy of discussion.”
It was “devastating” to see the loss of early years teachers from Scotland’s nurseries, said Ms Palmer. Under Upstart’s plans there would be “no diminution of early years qualifications and expertise”. Scotland had got away with children starting school aged 4 or 5 in the past because they were getting “lots of play round the edges”, she said. But, she added, children now spent more time indoors engaged in sedentary pursuits and it was having a knock-on effect on educational outcomes and health.
Ms Palmer said: “It is not the case that the quicker you push children the better they do. You have to start from where they are and the best time to sit down in a classroom is the beginning of P3.”
The Scottish Government says that there are “no plans” to change the school starting age.
A spokesman said: “Scottish ministers are confident that the legislation setting out the school starting age…is appropriate and there are no plans to change it.”
‘The transition is too quick’
Willie French has been a headteacher for 20 years and joined Royal High Primary School in Edinburgh just over a year ago. He spent Sunday campaigning with Upstart.
Mr French said: “When they arrive for formal schooling – which can be as young as 4 years and 6 months – they have not had the same opportunity to develop a lot of these early years skills or experiences. Upstart talks about having a kindergarten phase from 3-7, but it could just as easily be 3-6. It’s about allowing children more opportunity to develop their socialisation. At the moment we expect them to come from a nursery environment – where there is unstructured play and they are outdoors a lot – to, six weeks later, sitting down, concentrating and learning how to write. The transition is too quick – it needs to be phased-in more.”