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CaptureCurriculum for Excellence is widely recognised as an enlightened, forward-thinking, child-centred policy document, which fully recognises the significance of children’s health and well-being for educational success. In addressing the educational process from age 3 to 18, CfE also recognises that it is essential to take a developmental approach to pedagogy, so that children’s learning is supported at each stage – pre-school, primary and secondary – as appropriate to their age and level of development.

As the First Minister states in her introduction to the National Improvement Framework for Scottish Education, CfE ‘provides a broader education and sets higher standards for achievement than ever before. It has transformed the quality of children’s learning, and their confidence and motivation.’

Areas of concern

Nevertheless, since CfE’s introduction, Scotland has not made significant progress in terms of attainment in literacy and numeracy compared with other European countries, a fact which is generally attributed to a widening of the attainment gap between children from advantaged and disadvantaged home backgrounds. There is also concern about children and young people’s physical and mental health, and about the employment prospects of some school leavers.  

CaptureThe four priorities of the National Improvement Framework are therefore:

  • improvement in attainment, specifically in reading, writing and numeracy
  • closing the attainment gap
  • improvement in children and young people’s health and well-being
  • improvement in sustained school leaver destinations for all young people.

To pursue these aims, the Scottish government has announced, among other measures:

  • a national system of standardised assessment for children in P 1, 4, 7 and S 3
  • a survey of children and young people’s health and well-being.  

It is easy to argue that data-gathering is unlikely to improve the quality of teaching and learning or the health and well-being of children and young people (and the argument is briefly outlined at the end of this paper). It is more difficult to suggest an alternative course of action for addressing the problems underpinning the four listed priorities. However, Upstart Scotland has a carefully-researched, evidence-based proposal for addressing these areas of concern.

Transformational change

The Curriculum for Excellence (like many other documents relating to children and education, such as Getting It Right For Every Child, the Early Years Framework and the recent Play Strategy) outlines admirable policies which should ensure that Scotland is the best place for children to grow up. However, at present, from the very start of the educational process, the policies concerned are not translating into practice.

Education does not, of course, take place in a vacuum. Children’s performance at school is inevitably affected by environmental and cultural factors beyond the school gates and over recent decades there have been considerable changes in terms of almost all Scottish children’s everyday experience:  

  • out-of-home childcare has become commonplace, even for very young children
  • children’s habits of play are greatly changed, and outdoor play is increasingly rare.

Neuroscience and developmental psychology are in accord that the two greatest influences on children’s physical, emotional, social and cognitive development are

  • the quality of their attachment to the adults who care for them
  • opportunities to engage in play, which is the inborn human learning drive.

If children are denied (or have inadequate access to) these essential ingredients of healthy development, it is likely to have long-term effects on their physical health, emotional resilience, social competence and self-regulation skills.   

Jaakkola_Children's_Party_2008_HPIM8834_Katutaidetta_CIn the Early Level and Level 1 of CfE, early years practitioners and teachers of P1 and P2 do not feel able to take a developmental approach to children’s education, which up to the age of 6 or 7 should be essentially play-based (see below). There are also problems in ensuring that the quality of out-of-home care for children of three and four (and younger) is as high as it should and could be. If transformational change is to be brought about so that the education of all Scotland’s children is built on the firmest possible foundations, it is vital that these factors are addressed.

For all children, but particularly for those from less advantaged homes, the quality of out-of-home care in the early years is of immense importance. Similarly, if young children do not engage regularly in active, creative play (especially outdoor play) at home, they need plenty of time and space to play in the first three or four years of state-provided education.       

Early education and the culture of ‘schooling’

The reasons behind Scotland’s failure to translate CfE policy into practice include:

  • cultural attitudes to the function of ‘schools’, which are seen by the overwhelming majority of adults as a place where children are ‘taught by teachers’ and where the first priority is children’s acquisition of the three Rs  
  • parental expectations of what children should achieve when they start primary school (‘Is he reading yet?’)
  • the influence of the increasing ‘schoolification’ of early years (EY) practice in the USA and UK
  • the professional divide between EY practitioners and primary teachers, and their different approaches to education
  • the hierarchical nature of the educational establishment, which results in EY authorities finding themselves at the bottom of the academic pecking order so that their voices are seldom heard in national debate.

Above all, and contributing to all the points listed above, is Scotland’s extremely early school starting age.  When everyone in a nation has been schooled since childhood that schooling begins at five, or even four, cultural attitudes to the education of young children are fixed on ideas of ‘top-down teaching’ and an early introduction to the three Rs.

graphicIn fact, in 66% of countries worldwide, the school starting age is 6 and in 22% (including many that now perform well above average in international comparisons of educational achievement and childhood well-being) it is seven.  Almost all of the 12% that have historically chosen to start school earlier – and whose performance in both education and well-being is distinctly lack-lustre – are members (or ex-members) of the British Empire.  

Scotland’s early school starting age not only means that formal schooling starts before many children are physically, emotionally, socially and cognitively ‘ready’ and able to take full advantage of it. It also meant that, when widespread demand for early childcare arose in the closing decades of the 20th century, it was only necessary to provide childcare for about two years. It was therefore seen primarily as ‘child-minding’ and the political emphasis was on getting parents into work, rather than on children’s development. So at a time when the quality of children’s early care and their need to learn through play is arguably more important than at any time in history, there was little interest or investment in these aspects of childcare.

In countries such as Finland, where – owing to a school starting age of seven – widespread demand for early childcare began in the 1970s, early years authorities have had forty years to develop a highly effective system of kindergarten care and education, while Scotland is still in the early stages of development. There has also been more support for Finnish early years educational development because children in Finland spend four years in their kindergarten settings, as opposed to Scottish children’s two years of pre-school ‘child-minding’ and two years of prematurely formal schooling. (This is extremely galling for EY specialists in Scotland, as our country has a very proud tradition of early years provision and scholarship, but – as stated above – the voices of EY authorities are seldom heard.)

It is no coincidence that Finland has, since international surveys began, been the highest (or near the highest) achieving country in both education and childhood well-being while Scotland – despite constant and considerable effort on behalf of its EY practitioners and teaching force – still struggles to deal with the four priorities listed above.


Upstart Scotland’s proposal

Upstart’s proposal is that Scotland should ensure all children have the effective, play-based, developmentally-appropriate start to the educational process recommended in CfE by the ring-fencing of four years (3-7) as a dedicated kindergarten stage, with a different ethos from the rest of the educational system.

The key defining difference in terms of ethos would be that, in the kindergarten stage, play is central to the learning process and adult support for children’s learning is based on each child’s developmental level, rather than curricular aims or arbitrarily-determined ‘outcomes’. 

There is now considerable evidence that play is the inborn learning drive of our species. Along with sensitive adult support and guidance, children’s own active, self-directed play is widely recognised as critical to the development of:

  • physical coordination and confidence, the ability to focus attention and control behaviour
  • emotional strengths, including a can-do attitude, resilience and the patience to pursue long-term aims, rather than immediate rewards
  • social competence, such as getting along with their peers, working collaboratively in a group and communication skills (including active listening)
  • cognitive capacities, such as the use of language to explore and express ideas, and ‘common-sense understanding’ of the world and how it works, which underpins mathematical and scientific abilities.

When play is allowed to drive the educational process until children are seven years old – rather than ‘top-down teaching’ and educational targets driving out play – there is the best possible chance of all children arriving in primary school with well-developed powers of self-regulation. Self-regulation is a far better basis for educational progress and lifelong resilience than meek compliance or, in the case of far too many children, bewilderment, fear and eventual disaffection.

The aims of the Upstart Scotland campaign, to be launched in 2016, are therefore:

  • to establish a statutory play-based ‘kindergarten stage’ for Scottish children – based on well-established developmental principles and similar to the systems in Nordic countries – with a recognisably different ethos from primary schooling
  • to stress the importance, for long-term mental health and well-being, of ensuring that between the ages of three and seven children are free from the pressure of the formal school system and educational target-setting
  • to raise awareness of the role of early years education in ‘levelling the educational playing field’, by providing all children with secure foundations for school-based and lifelong learning
  • to argue the case for play (particularly outdoor play and contact with the natural world) as an inborn human instinct, vital to children’s physical, emotional, social and cognitive development, and seriously lacking in the lives of many 21st century children
  • to highlight the importance of supporting children’s social, emotional and spoken language development in the early years, as the basis for successful later learning of the three Rs and educational achievement in general
  • to draw attention to the extremely early school starting age in UK countries (as opposed to the rest of the world), and the growing evidence of a connection between ‘schoolification’ of early years education the widening achievement gap between rich and poor in the USA and UK
  • to highlight the need for a well-qualified, highly-respected early years workforce with a common understanding of the principles of child development and the importance of ‘attunement’ (the capacity to ‘tune into’ young children’s needs, intentions and emotions) in anyone working with the under-sevens.

Further information and the first draft of an evidence base are available on

The tests don’t work

Upstart Scotland is opposed to the introduction of national standardised testing of the type suggested in the National Improvement Framework. Testing systems of this kind have been in use in the USA and England for many years but according to a recent report by Professor Merryn Hughes (Exam Factories, 2015):

There is no evidence as yet that accountability measures can reduce the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. There is evidence that disadvantaged children, who on average have lower attainment than their peers and are therefore under greater pressure to meet targets, can become disaffected as a result of experiencing ‘failure’, and this is being exacerbated by recent changes to the curriculum to make it more demanding and challenging.’

kid-165256_1920It therefore seems highly unlikely that standardised testing will make any significant difference in Scotland. It will, however, put extra pressure on pupils, teachers and parents to achieve good test results, so is also likely to result in a narrowing of the curriculum due to the well-known phenomenon of ‘teaching to the test’. So it will probably contribute to further ‘schoolification’ of early years practice, as it has in the USA and England.

Testing may also adversely affect health and well-being, since a high-stakes testing regime will add to the many pressures that now beset the younger generation. Over the last decade, there have been reports of alarming increases in mental health problems among children and young people, especially in terms of attention deficit, depression, self-harm and eating disorders. The reasons behind these increases are undoubtedly complex, and associated with aspects of 21st century culture and lifestyles mentioned earlier, but psychologists now consider that a lack of emotional resilience is a significant contributory factor. Attachment and play during children’s early years are both recognised as ways of developing resilience.   

Readiness for life

The arguments above have addressed the first three priorities listed in the National Improvement Framework:

  • improvement in attainment, specifically in reading, writing and numeracy
  • closing the attainment gap
  • improvement in children and young people’s health and well-being
  • improvement in sustained school leaver destinations for all young people.

A dedicated kindergarten stage would also address the final priority, since the purpose of kindergarten education is to develop ‘the whole child’.  It is not concerned with a narrow definition of ‘school readiness’ but with readiness for life in general, and for lifelong learning. 

father-713690_1280The life-skills required for success in the world of work are exactly those that nature designs children to acquire through play: social skills, perseverance, creativity, problem-solving ability, the capacity to collaborate and cooperate, and the powers of self-regulation needed to survive and thrive in any institutional setting.  

Upstart therefore urges the Scottish government to redirect the financial resources currently ear-marked for national testing towards

  • the establishment of a kindergarten stage
  • improving the capacity of the early years workforce  

to ensure that all children start their education on the levellest of possible playing fields, physically, emotionally, socially and cognitively ready and able to learn.

Sue Palmer

Chair, Upstart Scotland

November 5th, 2015