THE school starting age in Scotland should be raised to six or seven, Willie Rennie will tell Scottish Liberal Democrat members when he addresses his party conference today.

Currently, pupils begin primary education when they are four or five but Rennie believes research has established they do better over their school career if they start a couple of years later.

He will make the call as he presses his argument for the Scottish Government to end the standardised assessments of primary one children.

“In 1870, the House of Commons chose an early school starting age so that children’s mothers could provide cheap labour in factories. It wasn’t for the benefit of the children but for the profits of unscrupulous bosses,” he will tell conference goers in Dunfermline.

“Almost 9 out of 10 countries in the world start formal education at the age of six or seven. Only a tiny fraction join Britain at such an early age. That’s why I want Scotland to join the majority of countries around the world.”

He will add: “I want schools be able to change the way we teach children aged four and five. We should start formal schooling at six or even seven. I want children in Scotland to get the long-term educational benefits ... International evidence shows that the under-sevens need a play-based approach to learning with plenty of opportunities for active, outdoor, social, self-directed play.”

Rennie will say his party will “stand with” parents and school staff if they snub the literacy and numeracy tests, aimed at helping teachers judge progress on a child’s learning.

Education Secretary John Swinney announced changes to assessments last month after hearing feedback from parents, staff and unions.

He said that while there is no statutory right for parents to withdraw their child from any aspect of schooling, they could discuss participation in the tests with their school.Opposition parties called for the P1 assessments to be scrapped altogether.

Rennie will tell the conference his party will work with campaign group Up Start Scotland – which is urging parents to boycott the P1 assessments – on a package of reforms including for the starting age to be raised.

Sue Palmer, chair of Upstart Scotland, welcomed Rennie’s intervention.

She said: “We are very very pleased politicians are starting to listen about changing the ethos of education up to seven. The Liberal Democrats are in favour of raising the school age to six or seven and we hope other parties will back this move too.

“It is vital for children’s well-being and for their all round development that they get more chances to do outdoor self directed play.

“If they don’t get enough of that type of experience we believe they are more at risk of mental health issues when they are older. Outdoor play is a biological necessity but it has become less a feature of childhood over recent decades.”

Upstart Scotland wants a new kindergarten model for early years education to be introduced for children from three to seven which would allow pupils more time to enjoy outdoor play before they begin formal schooling.

The Scottish Greens also back raising the school starting age.