Too Much Too Young

A 2-year-long C4 Dispatches, aired in 1998, investigating whether or not teaching children to read and write too early could be harmful found unequivocally that it can cause permanent damage in up to 40% of young children. The findings were shared with every MP and leading educationalists around the country. Yet 23 years on, the numeracy and literacy skills of P1 children aged 4 and 5 are being tested, using the controversial online SNSA in Scotland, against the will of the Scottish Parliament.

Ever since the triennial international Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) comparisons began, countries with later school starting ages have performed better than those with early starting ages. The results from PISA (2018)  were released on 2nd Dec 2019. The United Kingdom ranked 14th in literacy, 18th in maths and 14th in science. OECD member countries and Associates decided to postpone the PISA 2021 assessment to 2022 due to the Covid pandemic. It is a voluntary assessment intended to help school leaders from across the world understand their 15-year old students’ abilities to think critically and apply their knowledge creatively in novel contexts.
UNICEF’s report Worlds of Influence: Understanding what shapes child well-being in rich countries (2020) uses comparable national data to rank EU and OECD countries on childhood according to children’s mental and physical health and academic and social skill-set. Based on these indicators the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway rank as the top three places to be a child among wealthy countries. On page 11 of the report, the UK is number 27. Children cite ‘fear of failure’ as the main reason for low happiness levels. The UK’s previous rankings of child well-being (16th in 2013) and (2007 the UK came bottom.) 

Upstart Scotland hailed new practice guidance introduced for Early Years in 2020: Realising the Ambition: Being Me as uncompromisingly committed to principled play-based pedagogy, and based on the most up-to-date research on child development’, stating: “If this document can be translated into practice in all Scottish early years settings (including P1), Scotland’s ELC provision will be up there with the Nordic countries… and Upstart will be redundant.” 

Members’ Business: Upstart Scotland – 9 March 2021

Steiner, Froebel and Montessori educational approaches to early childhood education together consider the importance of the child, what they can bring to the world and the educational worthwhileness of kindergartens for the first seven years as vital. How each prepare the learning for the child is where they part ways. 

Flagship Edinburgh Steiner School financed the £15k production with the support of other philanthropic organisations and individuals who share the drive to bring increased awareness to play being a child’s principal work, advocating a move away from the premature start to school. Uniquely ESS has long run a play-based curriculum in the Early Years, starting formal education in the August after a child’s sixth birthday. Its Kindergarten and Class 1 are featured in Now We Ae Six.  

“The biggest difference [in the Steiner pedagogy] is the emphasis on free, imaginative, child-led play in our beautiful and enabling environment. With open-ended toys and equipment which the children can use in many ways and make of it what they wish. A wooden slice of log could be a wheel, a tray, a game, a stool, a building block. Children need to play out what it is that they are experiencing in life in order to embed the experience and often transform it.” Janni Nicol, Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship

Steiner Waldorf education provides parents with an important alternative to mainstream independent education, giving their child a learning experience based on the simple but profound insight that children learn in different ways at different stage of their development, where imaginative play is a superfood ingredient that affords lifelong nourishment. There is a state-funded Steiner school in England, through the academy system. With education devolved in Scotland, there is a second parent-funded Steiner school in Forres.  

Haddington Primary is a 900-pupil school in East Lothian, Scotland. Willie French has been the headteacher since 2018. The curriculum delivered is Curriculum for Excellence.

Upstart Scotland have been tirelessly campaigning for a statutory kindergarten stage for all under 7s in Scotland since 2016. Their website collates the vast body of growing evidence in support of their aims.

2021 is shaping up to be a milestone year for the campaign: Three of the major parties declared their support for Upstart’s aims in their manifestos this year: Scottish GreensLiberal Democrats and Labour party. Play is the Way (given to every MSP in Scotland), is in its fifth run (as of June, 2021) – by far the best-selling book on the Postcards from Scotland list. MSPs bid to raise school starting age to 7 in an ‘historic change’ in Scotland’s education system. The  landmark motion was the first debate in the Scottish Parliament since 1870.   

Grassroots Give Them Time has successfully campaigned to change the law ending the ‘birthday discrimination’ in Scotland so that all children legally deferring their Primary One start (those not age 5 by the school start date) will be automatically entitled to a further year of nursery (ELC) funding.

Whilst City of Edinburgh Council pledged to fund all deferrals from 2021 (and has Partnered with Edinburgh Steiner School to offer up to 1,140 hours early learning and childcare in a kindergarten setting mixing 3.5 – 6 year old), this is not being fully rolled out across the country until August 2023.

Further still, parents will still be required to apply to Defer P1 by a certain deadline many months before the beginning of the academic year. In previous years parents have been unaware, misinformed, or lied to, about their legal right to do so. November-born Matilda, aged 4 in Now We Are Six, is one of these children.   

Lead author, Dr Kylie Bradfield and Prof Mark Priestley at University of Stirling compiled a report School Starting Age (SSA): A Brief Summary. It drew on international evidence of differing approaches to kindergarten, starting ages for formal education and their associated outcomes for the Scottish Parliament.

“Demands for improved performance and accountability of schools has led to an increased level of research interest. Although the complexity of the question is acknowledged, with recognition of the multiple influences on outcomes, most findings suggest considerable benefits to delayed school entry.”