Why We Need a Kindergarten Stage

‘Scots pupils face losing a year of school under SNP policy plan to raise school starting age to six!’ screamed the Scottish Daily Express, sparking a shower of media interest in a proposal (for the forthcoming SNP conference) that Scotland should have a kindergarten stage for its young children,  like those in the Nordic countries. 

But there was very little coverage of the reason for the proposal, which is that education during early childhood (defined by the UN as birth to eight) should be based on the science of child development … and Scottish education gurus have never shown much interest in early child development. 

It shames me to admit it but during 30 years working in education myself – as a primary teacher, head teacher and literacy consultant – I knew very little about the subject.  It wasn’t until the turn of the century, when researching a book on children’s changing life-styles, that I started finding out. 

Mind you, it was a good time to get interested because neuroscientists were discovering more about the developing brain every day – especially the significance of positive relationships and play for young children’s lifelong learning and well-being.  As a result, I’ve since spent most of my waking life  trying to alert other educators to the terrifying discovery that our national devotion to an early start on formal schooling is damaging many children’s chances of success at school – and potentially undermining all children’s long-term well-being.  

Fortunately, I wasn’t alone in this discovery.  Many people from a wide range of professional backgrounds – health, child psychology, social justice, children’s rights, the play sector and, of course, early learning and care – had the same concerns. In 2016, I joined a bevy of assorted experts to launch Upstart Scotland, a campaign for a relationship-centred, play-based kindergarten stage for three- to seven-year-olds. 

Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence has an ‘early level’ covering ages three to six, which (in the original document) is clearly based on the developmental principles Upstart recommends and, since Scotland has an obvious affinity with the Nordic nations, we believed the government would soon recognise this as the best way forward for early education policy.

We were soon disillusioned.  A few months before Upstart’s launch, the First Minister announced a raft of measures aimed at closing the poverty-related attainment gap, including a plan for national standardised assessments of literacy and numeracy, starting in Primary 1. We wrote to the Scottish government explaining that national assessment regimes inevitably lead to ‘teaching to the test’ and, for children who aren’t developmentally ‘ready’ at the tender age of five (which includes many of those on the wrong side of the attainment gap), pressure to get started on the three Rs is counter-productive.       

But plans for national assessments continued, and were soon accompanied by lists of literacy and numeracy ‘benchmarks’ for achievement in Primary 1, many of which are completely unrealistic for the age-group.  Lists of this kind are easily transformed into ‘targets’ so, as well as tests to be taught to, Scotland now has academic targets for five-year-olds. Despite considerable opposition from many children’s sector organisations, and a motion carried by the Scottish Parliament to scrap the P1 tests, the government has pressed on with the policy.

To be fair, they’ve also supported some moves in the right direction.  There’s been a welcome expansion of outdoor learning, especially in the nursery sector (unfortunately it usually stops when children transfer to P1 because most schools don’t have the facilities or aren’t really interested in providing them).  There’s now funded nursery provision so that all three- and four-year-olds have access for 1140 hours per year (although there are still an awful lot of problems to sort out). And, from 2023, automatic funded deferral of four-year-old child’s school start for any parent requesting it. 

Last but definitely not least, in 2020 Education Scotland published practice guidance for early childhood care and education, covering the whole of CfE’s early level. It’s called Realising the Ambition: Being Me, is based on sound developmental science and is already inspiring many P1 and P2 teachers to change to a more play-based approach.    

So, when the SNP’s Policy Convener, Toni Giugliano, proposed a motion to introduce a kindergarten stage at the forthcoming SNP Conference, the government’s response was that ‘It’s not necessary – we’re doing it already.’  But while Upstart Scotland gratefully acknowledges the progress that’s been made, we must explain that it IS necessary and they certainly aren’t doing it already.

A kindergarten stage is necessary to reduce the attainment gap (which is at root is developmental, not educational). As long as those tests and targets are there in P1, local authorities will pressurise schools for evidence of progress in literacy and numeracy. Most P1 teachers will be required by their senior management to teach the three Rs, rather than supporting children to learn as appropriate to their stage of development.  Research shows that, in the long run, early pressure for academic learning does far more harm than good. 

A kindergarten stage is also necessary to reduce the number of additional support needs in Scottish schools – now standing at a horrifying 33%. The majority of these additional needs are due to developmental or emotional problems, both of which would be hugely ameliorated by an extra couple of years in a kindergarten environment.  

And a kindergarten stage could also help stem the horrifying tide of mental health problems among children and young people.  What happens during early childhood has lifelong implications for physical and mental health.  It’s a time when children need to be physically active, not stuck behind desks in classrooms for many hours a day.  It’s when they develop, through play, the social and emotional skills needed to thrive throughout life – not least self-regulation and emotional resilience, both of which act as protective factors against mental health problems in the future.

Thanks to a decision by Victorian politicians, for the last 150 years Scotland has sentenced its children to formal education about halfway through their early childhood (at least a year earlier than any child on mainland  Europe or, indeed, Canada and Australia). It is not working. We need this change NOW!


Comments (11)

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  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    While I support a change in approach to early years education, such as described here, I have to point out that it is not just the right wing as exemplified by your quote from the Daily Express which has ‘weaponised’ early years education, such weaponisation has been deployed by supporters on the self-proclaimed ‘progressives’.

    This has resulted in the debate being adversarial and accompanied by insult and contempt. Consequently, the central issue about what is best for our young children, gets lost in the aggressive points scoring which, alas, has been a feature of the debate, if it can actually be called a debate. Indeed, this article contributes to the disrespectful contempt which has led to ‘goal displacement’. The aim of a better, more rounded experience for our children has been relegated and ego driven point scoring insults are traded. A lack of respect has been a feature, and, sadly, this article is not part of it.

    In my opinion, early years education in the forms deriving from Montessori, Piaget and others and implemented successfully in many places is the way to ‘close the attainment gap’. And, as an aside, we need to widen what ‘attainment connotes. The economic social control paradigm has, sadly, dominated the public education system in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK and it needs to be changed. And, in a number of ways it has changed, because simply giving children access to education has liberated huge numbers of us. Comprehensive education despite the sneers of the media and, shockingly, of many sections of the teaching profession, particularly in the secondary sector has brought about substantial changes. It’s success is the very reason why reactionaries have sought to overthrow programmes like Head Sart, Sure Start and the ‘academies’ programme in England. The malign ‘target setting’ agenda, was intended not to ‘drive up standards’, but to stifle creativity of teachers and schools and to make it difficult to adopt creative pedagogies, which, in turn would release the inherent creativity of children.

  2. 220930 says:

    Positive relationships and play are indeed significant for young children’s ‘proper’ physical and social development, if they’re not getting that ‘proper’ care at home, the state does need to step in to supply the deficit through something like a kindergarten system. There’s also the need for the state to provide childminding in order to enable parents to serve as grist for the capitalist mill. Robert Owen clearly saw the need for the exercise of such biopower over the rabble in cultivating a disciplined and compliant workforce, not least to counter the radicalisation of the unchained poor; he wrote tracts on the matter.

  3. SleepingDog says:

    What is the source, explanation, definition, trend, context, demographic statistics for “additional support needs in Scottish schools – now standing at a horrifying 33%”? How are these spread over the current school population? That seems like a fairly bare statement begging substantial, er, additional support.

    1. 220930 says:

      The last figures I saw were produced by the Scottish government’s Learning Directorate in 2018, when the percentage of young people identified as having additional support needs in the Summary Statistics for School was 28.7. Presumably, Sue’s figure of 33% is from the most recent Summary.

      You’ll find the definition of ‘additional support needs’ in the preamble to the Summary (‘support that is additional to, or different from, that received by children or young people of the same age to ensure they benefit from [the same] education’).

      Prevailing theory explains the need for additional support in terms of several different kinds of disadvantage: some young people don’t benefit as much as others from the education the state provides because they experience poorer mental and/or physical health, poorer access to physical and/or cultural environments that are conducive to learning, and/or poorer social security as a condition of learning. Basically, the theory that currently prevails is that some young people need additional support to benefit from the education the state provides because of the poverty they experience in some aspects of their life compared to that experienced by other young people and because, without that additional support, the former wouldn’t enjoy equal access to that education.

      What this means is that, by the Scottish government’s own figures, 33% of young people in Scotland experience some disadvantage in accessing the benefits of the education it provides and that this figure is increasing. Within this theoretical context, kindergartens (where education is about social development and that social development is relationship-centred and play-based) are thought to contribute to the creation of a cultural environment that’s more conducive to early years learning than that found in traditional infant classes in primary schools.

      All this is implicitly recognised in the Scottish government’s Curriculum for Excellence, but it’s contradicted by the same government’s regime of national assessments for the early-year age group. Which seems to be Sue’s beef.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Lord Parakeet the Cacophonist, my comment was largely intended to be interpreted as a mild suggestion to the author to include at least the minimal requirement for such a statement in a blog post: a hyperlink.

        I did find another blog post, but its hyperlinks do not apparently go to source data. https://www.audit-scotland.gov.uk/publications/children-and-young-people-who-need-additional-support-for-learning

        Assuming that its figures are accurate, I would not call the 6% of children in publicly-funded Scottish schools needing additional support with English because it is not their first language ‘horrific’ (I might call it ‘welcoming’). Other forms of learning support may be provided today for reasons associated with relatively newly-diagnosed needs or conditions, like dyslexia or autism. Again, I would not call this ‘horrific’.

        The problem with using these figures in isolation is that you cannot compare them with a) private school provision in Scotland, or b) internationally. For example, there may be an international trend in rising autism diagnoses in schoolchildren. We should also need figures showing distribution of complex (mixed) needs.

        Regardless of whether you view poor mental health in children as something primarily to be treated, or whether you are primarily concerned with the factors causing poor mental health, if the private education sector produces less cases of diagnosed mental illness but more functioning psychopaths, then perhaps we need an entire systems rethink. But also we need to understand how additional support needs are measured across sectors (and not all publicly-funded schools are the same type in Scotland) and countries for the full picture to emerge.

        If the full picture in Scottish publicly-funded schools reflects “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”, then perhaps a third of children receiving additional support is not ‘horrific’ but appropriate. Just because you receive additional support for one need does not mean you can’t excel in other abilities. I’m not attacking anything in the article, in fact I once studied developmental psychology (where we read Margaret Donaldson’s Children’s Minds with a wonderfully vivid description of children playing happily at the start of their education before becoming disillusioned in later years) and agree with its central point; I just need more information in order to understand its viewpoint on additional needs, including the evidence for causation of conditions.

        1. 220930 says:

          Yes, I agree. If young people who are identified as having additional support needs receive additional support that’s appropriate to their needs, then that would be a good thing, irrespective of whether their education is publicly or privately funded. Educational support should be child-centred rather than politicised. It may be disappointing that ONLY 33% of children currently in education receive additional support.

          And it would also to see the evidence that Sue would support of the claim that replacing traditional early years primary schooling with a kindergarten system would reduce the need for additional support in later years. Surely, that would depend on the nature and extent of the disadvantage (if any) the child later experiences in accessing the benefits of the education that’s offered them.

          1. 221002 says:

            But let no forget Sue’s main contention; that the kindergarten system is a kinder and more productive way of conforming young people in the early years of their education to the character-ideal prescribed by the Curriculum for Excellence.

            As St Ignatius Loyola said, ‘Give me a child till he is seven years old, and I will show you the man.’

    2. Alasdair Angus Macdonald says:

      You have raised a good point which illustrates my point about the adversarial nature of the debate. This is a datum quoted out of its proper context and embedded in a piece which is a hostile context and so has become a points scoring weapon.

      1. Sue Palmer says:

        Apologies if I was a tad careless. I used the 33% figure because of a piece by Angela Morgan (Independent Chair of the Review of Implementation of Additional Support for Learning in Scotland 2019 – 2020) in TESS:

        it’s really difficult to find accurate figures on this topic and I assumed she is aware of them.

        Sorry also that it’s taken me so long to reply. Life has been a bit busy due to the resolutions in favour of a relationship-centred, play-based kindergarten stage at the SNP Conference and the Scottish Greens Conference in the last couple of weeks. But it does seem that people are starting to recognise that Scotland’s extraordinarily early start on the three Rs disadvantages a significant number of Scottish children in terms of lifelong learning and well-being.

        For more information, please follow @Upstart.Scot or register for our monthly newsletter on http://www.upstart.scot

      2. Sue Palmer says:

        Apologies for my delay in noticing this comment. My reference to 33% ASN pupils was based on this TESS piece by Angela Morgan (Independent Chair of the Review of Implementation of Additional Support for Learning in Scotland 2019 – 2020.):


        It’s very difficult to find accurate data on this subject but I assumed she was a pretty reliable source. The effects of the COVID restrictions and cost-of-living crisis are likely to swell the number of developmental problems in young children, which will have even greater impact on ASN. It seems to me more important than ever that we ‘go upstream’ and try to ameliorate these problems with a relationship-centred, play-based kindergarten stage.

        1. SleepingDog says:

          @Sue Palmer, thanks for the clarification and link. I worked for a while in education, in contact with a Learning Support unit, and their biggest concern appeared to be tailoring support for learners with complex needs, because they tended to respond best to quite specific approaches. I don’t see how putting everyone in a ‘mainstream’ category would help them, and those specific approaches would not suit the rest of learners. I do see the advantages of a later start to more formal learning, and more play-interaction experiences. You write that early focus on 3 Rs is counter-productive; so what in your view is productive education? What should we be looking for as evidence that your replacement approach is working as intended? What are the measurable proxies for well-being, or socialisation, or perhaps even wisdom?

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