LET’S get a few things straight about the debate on P1 assessments, which ended in defeat yesterday for John Swinney and the Scottish Government. Yes, political opponents like the Tories are playing politics – calling for more information about pupil achievement one minute, but condemning national assessments the next.

But no, Tory opposition doesn’t make the assessments right.

Yes, John Swinney is correct to say some teacher-responses to an EIS survey on standardised national assessments were actually positive.

READ MORE: Swinney says he will ‘consider’ P1 tests Parliament defeat

But those positive responses related to P4/P7 tests. Analysis showed no positive comments about the P1 tests.

According to Sue Palmer; former primary head-teacher, author of “Toxic Childhood” and founder of Upstart Scotland; “After Primary 4 there are evidence-based arguments both ways about the value of testing. In Primary 1 there are none at all. National standardised testing runs totally counter to the Curriculum for Excellence and nips in the bud the growing move towards play in the early years. It encourages teaching to the test, narrows the curriculum and changes the relationship between teachers and children – particularly damaging for disadvantaged children.”

Of course, it’s true the majority of five-year-olds aren’t bursting into tears when faced with this assessment process.

But that doesn’t make it the best age to conduct a national assessment of literacy and numeracy skills. “Baseline” tests on English five-year-olds were introduced twice in the noughties and immediately abandoned because they had “no meaningful value at such an early developmental stage in children’s lives.” Now Theresa May plans to introduce Scottish-style, baseline tests again, prompting the British Educational Research Association to label them “a baseline without basis.” Sadly, that harsh verdict applies to Scotland too.

In 88% of countries in the world – including all modern, progressive European nations – children aged five are not even at school. They are still at play, learning to be children without the stress of “getting ahead.” Why not here?

Yes, other issues may seem more important. But currently just 12% of countries send five-year-olds to school. All are former parts of the British Empire, unreflectively clinging to a model devised in the 1870s by Westminster to free women of childcare so they could be put to work in factories instead. Child welfare played no part in plumping for a school starting age of four or five. So why would Scotland not question this dodgy, archaic thinking? It beats me. More importantly, it beats many people at the chalkface including primary one and two teachers, childcare practitioners and parents.

Yes, it is useful for adults to notice how children are developing and pick up problems early. But no, that doesn’t mean national, standardised tests are the best way to do it.

According to Sue Palmer; “It would be great to have a developmental screening at the age of five. They do this in Germany before children start school at six/seven. Children go to their doctors for a physical health and a cognitive screening. Both are done by people with the relevant professional qualifications – not tablet-based tests delivered by a harassed teacher in a busy classroom.

“Germany’s screening does not cover literacy skills because their five-year-olds aren’t expected to read and write. If Scotland could afford to do what Germany does, it would be wonderfully helpful. But there’s no comparison between a genuine developmental screening and the imposition of standardised national tests in literacy and numeracy at the wrong age.”

Evidence suggests an unduly early start at school is linked to social, emotional and mental health problems in children forced to begin formal learning before they are ready, while children taught literacy skills from the age of five do no better in the long run than those who start at seven. This is why the national standardised test at the age of five does such damage.

In lieu of a proper childcare service, some innovative Scottish teachers have introduced a play-based approach to learning in Primaries 1 and 2. It means children’s confidence is slowly built up and a close, trusting relationship develops with the teacher.

Then one day the children are handed a tablet – a gadget many poor kids have never seen before – and told to do unfamiliar things, for reasons they can’t understand. Why?

So yes, I’d agree with John Swinney when he says he spends more time in schools than any other commentator on Scottish education and doesn’t recognise the negative picture painted.

But it isn’t commentators or politicians who are leading the campaign against P1 assessments and for a totally different kind of early years experience for five-year-olds – it is mums, concerned dads, teachers and early years experts. It is grassroots people – even if weary media coverage and the Holyrood debate fail to reflect that fact.

Finally, yes, progress in the early years is key to closing the educational attainment gap.

But there are two big ways to close the educational attainment gap. The first is to shift the school starting age from four/five to six/seven and invest in state of the art kindergarten care.

The second is to achieve independence, so we can properly tackle the massive learning problems generated by poverty, substance abuse and hopelessness amongst the poorest communities in Scotland.

It’s puzzling to see the Scottish Government hug sole responsibility for fixing the attainment gap, when it is largely caused by the inequality that’s been created and perpetuated by successive Westminster governments – a political culture independence supporters want to leave behind.

The urge to stuff education into five-year-old brains may be understandable – but it’s not rational, helpful or kind. Instead, the next generation requires a collective act of faith by today’s adults in their innate ability to learn without tests, until the time is right.

Lots of independence-supporting people would like Scotland to head in this direction, so labelling critics as part of an “SNPBad” conspiracy isn’t helpful or accurate. Political debate is more complex and diverse than two pro and anti-independence “sides” can accurately reflect.

John Swinney has lost the battle on Primary 1 assessments, but can still win the war over school starting-age reform. Alternatively, if the opposition parties really are interested in anything more than point-scoring, they can now lead the way.

For the sake of our future generations, let’s hope the massive potential of early learning finally gets an airing now.