KIRSTY bestrides the land again. No, not the elegant inquisitor from late-night current affairs telly, but the fictional baby first invoked in a famous 2013 SNP indyref broadcast (born on September 18 2014), who gazed upon her alternative futures, post-Yes or No.

She has been revived (and her birthdate shifted to May 5 2016) by Holyrood magazine, signalled by the Twitter hashtag #holyroodbaby. Kirsty will be a device by which the Scottish Government’s commitment to the prospects of the nation’s children will be measured – whether in terms of health, poverty, education, etc.

It’s a cute and engaging meme to send forth. But particularly in terms of the new ScotGov’s fiery mission to “reduce the attainment gap” in education, we do need to talk about Kirsty. And particularly whether she’ll be skipping her way happily through her early years, or furrowing her brow in preparation for a stressfully damaged life.

To adopt an appropriately childlike metaphor, let me first point at the Emperor’s New Clothes (or Targets). There is something understandably but tragically upside-down in the way the ScotGov conceives of its mission to close the “attainment gap”.

The educational graphs are stubbornly consistent. Education outcomes correlate to the child’s socio-economic circumstances – you get better results from richer kids, worse results from poorer. The “attainment gap” is really a poverty and inequality gap. Why can’t we just say that straight out?

Because it’s not easy to address. The SNP ScotGov can’t get a grip on our political economy to the degree it wants to, in order to progressively reduce the inequality gap. (That was the point of independence, or even full fiscal autonomy – agreed?) So they’ll try to control what they believe they do have control over, which is the performance of the education system.

Yet throughout the countries measured by the global educational standards organisation PISA – and as much in Scotland as anywhere else – we have a blunt truth to face. As a recent PISA blog noted, waves of reforms and initiatives, backed up by many billions in spending, have resulted in very little denting of the correlation between socio-economic inequality and poor educational outcomes.

In Scotland, we do indeed live within the hirpling constraints of devolution. But let me stick a hand up from the back of the class. Are we are about to chuck those precious reserves of cash, expertise, teachers’ patience and ministerial ambition at a needle which might barely move over the course of the coming Parliament? And that because of brute structural reasons – that is, the current harsh neo-liberal model of capitalism – which no regime of “pupil performance indicators” can really affect that much?

The original Kirsty didn’t spend her second day on this planet in an independent Scotland. A state where the left and the Greens could have played their active, democratic part in maximising her life chances, by bidding to deploy the full tools of national government. Let’s not remotely forget that we should still try very hard to get there.

But in the meantime ... maybe we should think about trying to shift the needle on another kind of “outcome” dial entirely. Like our leaders, I would love Scottish education policy to be “evidence-based” – indeed, hard-science based. But let’s have a serious, non-partisan discussion about what science and evidence should be leant upon here.

Swinney has asked for a “bit of time and space” to gather his wits together about the challenge. Elsewhere in today’s paper, Sue Palmer – childhood expert, member of Holyrood’s Early Years Taskforce in 2012, and founder of Upstart Scotland – has really given John something to chew over. And precisely at the level of what research to draw on for his education policy over the next four years.

Palmer’s open letter to the new education minister is worth reading carefully. The news angle is obvious. If we are to draw on “international comparisons” in our search for better education in Scotland, as the First Minister proposed with her new council of education advisers the other day, then let’s indeed draw from the best.

Finland, Switzerland and Estonia have a kindergarten pre-school system, running from three to seven years, dominated by play-based, exploratory activities. This holds off formal requirements for literacy and numeracy, whether in terms of teaching or testing, until up to two years after the Scottish (and UK) norm.

On these test-often, test-early islands, we fail to make the top 20 in any subject. Whereas Finland, Switzerland and Estonia are the top three Western nations for educational outcomes.

Let’s presume the first two have a much better social equality ratio than Scotland or the UK (I’ll leave Estonia to its experts). But Palmer notes elsewhere that 88 per cent of the world’s education systems have three-to-seven-year kindergarten systems (our starting age of five for formal education is a weird legacy of empire and industry). And all the countries that outperformed the UK in the PISA ratings have a later formal schooling starting age than ours.

What are the benefits of starting formal schooling later, and filling up the intervening years with a play-based kindergarten experience? Upstart Scotland’s research page is thuddingly clear.

Drawing on evolutionary neuroscience and comparative educational studies, the assertion is this: Children are built much better for their long-term future - as learners, workers, citizens, innovators, human beings - if their natural appetite for exploratory and imaginative play is supported at precisely the right stage of their development.

In his cramming period, I would advise Swinney to fully digest Upstart Scotland’s sources. In my assessment (as someone whose been advocating the power and potential of play for the last decade or so), they go absolutely toe-to-toe with existing justifications for imposing literacy and numeracy tests in these crucial early years.

They are also consistent with Curriculum For Excellence. CfE turns out to be not just another educational reform to add to the leaning tower of PISA reports, but a world-admired approach – one which is entirely sensitive to the role of play (or “active learning”, as it is often euphemized) in child development.

Yet it seems that a combination of under-resourcing of the teaching changes required, and a loss of collective nerve among politicians and sectoral leaders, is putting CfE under threat.

Palmer, and other play advocates, have a chilling list of undesirable outcomes that they say comes when formal education is applied “too much, too soon”, as one volume of essays puts it. For example, our kids are being deprived of rough-and-tumble, public and exploratory play at this vital stage (and who can deny, in this helicopter-parent age, that they are?).

As a result, it looks as if their capacities for coping with themselves and others, emotionally and socially, are being critically damaged.

We praise ourselves about our rising commitment to mental health services. But can we match this with an equal commitment to the very playful experiences that build and found us, as confident, outward-looking, capable social animals? And might this attack the problem of poor mental health, in both children and later adults, at one of its root causes?

For one moment, I do not doubt the passionate sincerity of the SNP cabinet in their attainment objectives. We all share their desire to take the Kirstys (and for that matter, Ewans) of this country by the hand, and help them to unfold the possibilities and multitudes they all undoubtedly contain.

But for those children's sake, and at this crucial stage of the debate, I would ask our ministers to think capaciously and complexly about the powers they can wield to that end. What “gets valued, gets measured”, as much as “what gets measured, gets done”. The advocates of a play-based, three-to-seven-years kindergarten system have a strong, scientific, robustly-researched case. Dear John, please listen to them.

For more information on Upstart Scotland, see

Pat Kane is a musician and writer (, and author of The Play Ethic (

Campaigners urge Swinney over kindergarten stage to close ‘shameful’ attainment gap