EDUCATION campaigners have issued a direct plea to John Swinney for “significant change” to address the attainment gap.

Studies show young people from the wealthiest parts of society significantly achieve higher grades than those from the poorest.

Analysis of 2015 exam results found just 340 of the 9,180 fifth year pupils in the most deprived areas got three or more A grades, compared with 2,250 of the 9,590 youngsters from the most wealthy backgrounds.

Led by educationalists and early years experts, Upstart Scotland is calling for fundamental change in schooling for the youngest pupils to improve attainment for all.

The plan involves the creation of another tier in the school system – a Finland-style kindergarten stage for those aged three to seven to bridge the gap between nursery and classroom and provide child-centred learning through play.

Campaigners claim the proposal is backed by a growing body of research and will allow youngsters to gain social, emotional and practical skills which will then allow them to flourish in formal education.

Now Upstart founder and chair Sue Palmer has written an open letter to Deputy First Minister John Swinney as he plans changes to address inequality and drive up standards.

The letter urges Swinney not to opt for stricter regulations and tougher testing, claiming that this may exacerbate the problem.

Palmer wrote: “Dear John Swinney, I’m sure you’re only too aware that there’s no magic bullet for closing the attainment gap.

“It’s ingrained in the social and economic circumstances in which Scottish children are born, raised and educated. It’s not only a symptom of inequality but a cause of continuing inequality. It’s wrong and shameful and it must be addressed... but significant change will require concerted, coherent action by all sectors of Scottish society over many years, possibly decades.

“So I’m writing on behalf of one group of people – Upstart Scotland – who desperately want to help make that change – people who have looked carefully at the evidence about child development and concluded that, for historical and cultural reasons, Scotland is actually perpetuating disadvantage by the structure of our education system.

“When children start school at the age of four or five, those from disadvantaged backgrounds are on average 13 months behind their luckier peers in terms of language and problem-solving skills. Yet we expect all children to achieve the same outcomes in literacy and numeracy. Not surprisingly, the disadvantaged kids fall behind, many lose heart, and despite the best efforts of their teachers, fail to thrive in our education system ... and so the cycle of disadvantage continues.”

She continued: “Upstart Scotland believes that our country’s extremely early school starting age, combined with an increasingly early focus on the three Rs, therefore compounds educational disadvantage and is far more likely to widen the attainment gap than to close it.

“Research now shows that play – especially outdoor, active, social, self-directed play – enhances self-regulation, emotional resilience and cognitive development. Yet, over recent decades this sort of play has practically disappeared from many children’s out-of-school lives. The ‘real play’ through which evolution designed young children to learn has been replaced by an indoor lifestyle, largely centred on sedentary, solitary, screen-based activity. These recent cultural changes make it even more important that our education system provides time, space and support for play-based learning in the early years.

“Please listen to Upstart’s arguments, Mr Swinney. We’re not suggesting that the introduction of a play-based kindergarten stage is a magic bullet. But we do have evidence that it could give all Scottish children – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds – a vastly improved chance of becoming successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors.”

The Scottish Government said: “Our National Play Strategy aims to significantly improve children and young people’s daily lives and help them to realise their enshrined right to play.

“The early stage of Curriculum for Excellence starts when children are three with their entitlement to early learning and childcare. For our young children, this means play, nurture and care in a happy environment where children are seen as active learners, with health and wellbeing as a core part of the curriculum.

“Meanwhile our £2.7 million annual national programmes Bookbug and PlayTalkRead aim to promote learning through play as well as boosting early literacy, communication and listening skills.”

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