The School Starting Age
An extract from Class Rules: the truth about Scottish schools by James McEnaney.
Changes to the school starting age now part of the mainstream conversation around Scottish schooling, and the idea is to be debated at the forthcoming SNP conference. As a result, I have decided to make this chapter of my recent book freely available.
In recent years one fairly radical idea – at least for Scotland – has attracted increasing levels of attention and widespread support: changing the age at which pupils start school. Right now, children in Scotland start primary school at either four or five – but many believe that this should not happen until the age of seven.
Although we naturally assume that our traditional approach represents good sense and normality, the truth is actually quite different. Across the world, fewer than 15% of countries send their children to school aged four or five, and almost all of them have direct historical links to the uk through the British Empire. The overwhelming majority of countries actually send their children to school aged six, a full two years later than some children in Scotland head off to primary school, and there are more countries with a starting age of seven than there are those adopting the approach we simply take for granted.
What’s more, there seems to be little rationale for our unusually young starting age beyond the fact that things have always been this way. If we were starting to build a public school system from scratch, how many of us would be arguing that the best place for a four-year-old child is a school classroom, or that they should be spending their time pursuing academic benchmarks rather than playing with their friends? Indeed, there are some very real concerns about the impact of sending children to school at such an early stage, with critics of the status quo citing the damage that can be done to young people’s emotional and mental health when we try to force them through a system for which they simply are not ready. You can’t force a caterpillar to turn into a butterfly and you risk doing a lot of damage if you try.
Those opposing change would perhaps argue that these concerns are outweighed by the outright educational advantages experienced by children in the UK – since they go to school earlier than their peers in other nations, they must also learn more and consequently outperform them? Not so. In ‘top performing’ countries such as Estonia, Canada and Finland schooling starts at six or seven years old. In New Zealand, parents can wait until their child’s sixth birthday before sending them to primary school, a stark contrast to Scotland’s approach where children begin school at the start of a pre-determined academic year. A 2009 review of Pisa data found no evidence that starting school earlier led to increased reading levels by the age of 15.
Those pushing for change, such as backers of the Upstart Scotland campaign, argue that children benefit most from a play-based experience that aids their overall development, not a system that values measurable reading, writing and counting skills above all else. They also believe that a kindergarten system would help to ensure that all children benefit from play-based, pupil-focused learning, avoiding the current postcode lottery where some schools have adopted varying degrees of this approach (typically for their youngest pupils) while others have not.
One central principle behind implementing a play-based, ringfenced kindergarten stage across the entire country is that it would protect children from the harms that can be done by a system that prioritises data and deadlines over wellbeing. Another is to help restore opportunities for active, social, outdoor play that are so crucial to children’s all-round development. It’s not that a kindergarten stage would, for example, mean that children would not learn to read until they start primary school at seven years old, simply that they would not be pushed to do so before they are ready in order to meet one-size-fits-all performance targets and curricular benchmarks. As any parent knows, during those early years children develop at markedly different rates and in entirely different ways: the one constant is that play and inquiry are how they learn. There is little if anything to be gained from ignoring these entirely natural variations, but there is increasing evidence that doing so can be damaging to young people’s lifelong learning and wellbeing.
Like many people across Scotland, I have been convinced that raising the school starting age, combined with a revolutionary investment in developing a universal kindergarten system, is probably the ideal starting point for improving Scottish schooling – but the second part of that proposition is crucial.
If we want to do something about the injustices that manifest in the earliest stages of children’s lives we should start, as the song says, at the very beginning, but simply sending children to school a couple of years later, while leaving the rest of our systems and approaches largely unchanged, would likely serve only to widen the divides between the richest and poorest families. By the time children reach two and half years old, measurable gaps between rich and poor have already appeared. One of the Scottish Government’s own ‘attainment gap’ measures shows that more than 70% of children from the most affluent areas show ‘no concerns’ at their 27–30 month review, but that the figure for those from the most deprived areas is just 55%. More broadly, there is widespread evidence of massive vocabulary gaps between children from different social backgrounds by the time they are even toddlers, a divide that is driven by different early life experiences as opposed to innately different ability levels.
Sending children to school too early is only likely to exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, these issues. The development of a national kindergarten system, universally available to all children from the ages of three to seven, with mixed-aged groupings, and either massively subsidised by or entirely paid for through general taxation (just like primary and secondary school), would help to focus attention and resources on the vitally important early years. It is one of the very few policy changes that could begin to equalise the foundational experiences of children across Scotland and taking such a step could be just the catalyst we need to rethink not just the school system but also some of our fundamental social assumptions.
Success would depend on both expertise and infrastructure. We would need to see the development of a well-qualified and high-status workforce and the construction of appropriate physical spaces (combining new or converted buildings with outdoor learning environments) across the country. In the end, the goal should be the creation of a truly national early years sector to replace the current patchwork of provision that further entrenches the divide between rich and poor. All of this would cost money, although given that we currently educate children from four years old anyway and are in the process of a significant expansion in early years provision, a lot of the resources are already likely to be in place.
This sort of change might also raise questions about the overall structures of primary and secondary schooling in Scotland. Just like with the school starting age, there is a tendency to believe that our current approach is also the ideal one, but what if we’re wrong? If we were to raise the starting age of formal schooling from four or five to seven, would it then make sense to reassess the point at which children shift from primary school to secondary? Should we perhaps go further, and ask whether the introduction of a middle stage – such as those used in countries like the usa, Japan or Norway – might be more compatible with cfe and allow us to better meet the needs of young people? Maybe it would be better to alter our approach to the final years of high school so that those aged 16–18 learn in an environment that looks and functions much more like a college, thus ensuring that they are better prepared to take their next steps after leaving the school system?
There’s really no reason why all of this shouldn’t be up for debate, even if it means overcoming the small-c conservatism that so often dominates our approach to education. Sometimes it is worth asking how much of the status quo would be replicated if we were building a system from scratch and then using the answer to help us focus on the possibilities for progress rather than the limits of the present.
The biggest barrier to these sorts of structural changes is probably political. Although some aspects of early learning could be improved relatively quickly, especially given the recent publication of updated guidance for early years education in Scotland, there is absolutely no way that the entire landscape of Scottish education could be redesigned and rebuilt within a five-year window. These are generational changes for which no single government is going to be able to claim the credit, so why start the process at all? It is also worth bearing in mind that the chaos and anger sparked by endless, aimless animosity over schools suits some politicians just fine. Keeping people outraged is, after all, a more effective way of shoring up your vote (and keeping your job) than cross-chamber collaboration.
Changes on the sort of scale we require would demand the construction of a broad, forward-thinking, long-term consensus – to be blunt, it isn’t clear that our elected representatives are up to that job. Perhaps they can surprise us.