IN October, the SNP conference will have the chance to adopt a game-changing policy that could transform the lives of children and their families across Scotland.

The Scottish education system is facing three seemingly intractable challenges.

Firstly, the poverty-related attainment gap – seven years’ laudable effort has failed to reduce it and, thanks to Covid, it yawns wider every day. Secondly, we’re witnessing a frightening increase in children with additional support needs: 33% of school pupils now fall into this category, and the pressure to support them with ever-shrinking funds is intense. And thirdly, the escalating mental health crisis among children and young people. Our mental health services are now so overwhelmed that 75% of kids who need help aren’t getting it.

So it’s time to heed the wise words of Desmond Tutu: “There comes a point when we just have to stop pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

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A rapidly growing body of evidence suggests that Scotland’s lack of attention to early child development exacerbates every one of these three challenges. To cut to the chase, we’re putting young children under huge pressure for academic achievement before they’ve developed the skills and capacities that underpin successful learning and long-term wellbeing.

Research on the attainment gap shows that five-year-old children raised in poverty are more than a year behind their wealthier counterparts in the development of language and problem-solving skills. Yet instead of supporting them to develop these and other foundational skills, their teachers are obliged to crack on with reading, writing and reckoning. Why? Because primary 1 is when Scotland starts assessing children against age-related “benchmarks” in literacy and numeracy.

THIS overlaps with challenges in “special needs”. Dyslexia and ADHD, for example, have a strong developmental component, so age-appropriate education makes all the difference. Imagine you’re five and your teacher asks you to perform a task that’s way beyond your linguistic, cognitive or physical ability. You really have only two choices: refuse and be labelled as having “behavioural problems”; or anxiously try to comply, in which case your fear of failure will undermine the development of emotional resilience.

Which brings us to mental health. Developmental science tells us that for children to grow up confident and resilient – able to rise to challenges and bounce back from difficulties – they need two things from the adults in their lives: unconditional, supportive care (confidence comes from feeling loved and valued) and plenty of opportunities for active, social, child-directed play, preferably outdoors and in green spaces. This combination isn’t available to many children in Scotland – which is why early years education has such an important role to play.

Evidence on the significance of early development has led many experts in education, neuroscience, health and children’s rights to support the Upstart Scotland campaign for a kindergarten stage for Scotland’s three-to-six-year-olds, similar to those in other Northern European countries.

INTRODUCING a statutory kindergarten stage wouldn’t change children’s entitlement to funded education in any way – it would instead change the ethos of primary 1, shifting the emphasis from academic pressures to child-led development and wellbeing. It would mean three years of fully funded pre-school education rather than two, followed by six years of primary education rather than seven. So, to be clear, there would be no change to the total number of years in education. The nature and ethos of education however, will become age-appropriate.

Neither would it be necessary to fork out for new buildings – it’s about changing how Scotland thinks about learning for the under-sixes, not where they do it. And there’d be no question of “holding back” the children who want to read, write and/or reckon – they’d be supported at their own level, as would those whose interest is yet to emerge. Kindergarten is about giving all children time to develop the emotional, social, physical and cognitive skills they need for lifelong learning and wellbeing.

It works successfully in countries like Finland and Estonia, where educational standards are higher than in the UK, even though school doesn’t start till seven. The UK starts children on formal schooling far earlier than mainland Europe and most of the world.

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ONLY 12% of countries worldwide send children to school at four or five years of age. We’ve been trapped in an early-start mentality since Victorian politicians decided to get poor children off the streets and into school as soon as possible so their mothers could go to work.

But now that we’re providing funded childcare for all children from the age of three, there’s no reason not to adopt the Finnish model of relationship-centred, play-based learning for three years rather than a measly one or two.

No four or five-year-old should face the pressures of the formal, sedentary and results-driven school system. Strengthening and investing in early years yields the highest return to society compared to fixing problems later down the line. It’s time to go upstream and join our neighbours in Europe in truly giving every child in Scotland the best start in life.

Sue Palmer is a former headteacher, an author, chair of Upstart Scotland and editor of Play Is The Way.

Toni Giugliano is the SNP’s Policy Development Convener and a mental health campaigner