PROPOSALS to raise the school starting age could be considered as part of a “national discussion” on education, the Scottish Government has said.

A call for children to begin school at six has been proposed for debate at the SNP’s conference this autumn.

The resolution submitted by Toni Giugliano, the SNP’s policy development convener, says a play-based kindergarten stage for children aged three to six years old should be introduced.

The Scottish Government has said there are no plans to change the school age, but such ideas will be considered as part of the recently launched “National Discussion” on education.

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Education Secretary Shirley Anne-Somerville said she wanted to hear “fresh, innovative ideas” to help deliver change and drive improvement.

Sue Palmer, chair of Upstart Scotland, has been campaigning for a number of years for Scotland to align with most other European countries in the age for starting school.

She said the idea of leaving nursery at four or five dated back to an “economic decision” in the Victorian era to keep children off the streets while their mothers were working in factories and recent years had seen added pressure for children to focus on academic learning earlier.

“I don’t think anyone meant for it to happen, but it is cultural, and because school starts at four or five, we started getting more anxious about them being able to do the ‘three Rs’ at four or five,” she said.

“The best practice I have seen is places like Finland, where they call it daycare until the kids are seven.

“The emphasis until the age of six or seven should be on health, wellbeing and overall development – physical, social, emotional and cognitive.”

Palmer argued current testing benchmarks which were “pretty demanding” should be replaced by a change in ethos to give primary one teachers “permission” to concentrate on health and wellbeing rather than numeracy and literacy.

She said it would be “wonderful” if Scotland could lead the way in the UK by changing the school age, but it would require a shift in thinking.

Mucky Boots Nursery in Aberdeenshire is an example of the SNP's proposed play-based schooling for young children

“It is about helping people recognise nobody is going to be left behind by having another year or so in which to develop all the skills and capacities that underpin the success of school, and indeed lifelong wellbeing,” she said.

IN contrast to the UK, Finland has had a school starting age of seven years old since mandatory education was established a century ago.

Ari Pokka, CEO of the Finnish Education Institute organisation, said pre-school education begins at the age of six, with some areas offering another optional earlier year.

“Pre-school in Finland is strongly connected kindergarten system,” he said. “We still believe that it’s most important to offer children time to play and activate themselves. We think in Finland that children are capable to start education at the age of seven – it’s a question of psychological, social and emotional skills.”

Giugliano, who himself started school in Italy aged six, has urged SNP delegates to back the motion so that it will be debated at the party conference in October.

He said: “Raising the school start age might be a headline grabber, but the key part of this proposal is the establishment of a kindergarten stage for three to six year olds.

“This means three years of fully-funded pre-school education for every child in Scotland. There would be no change to the total number of years in education – what would change is the ethos of primary 1 – which would become part of early years rather than primary education.”

He added: “A well trained workforce will be key to making this happen – but let’s be clear – every pound spent on early years, including staff, yields a much bigger return to society than spending money on services later down the line.

“It’s not a silver bullet – but if we pass this policy it would force a rethink on how we do early years education in this country and get a grip of the rising mental health problems that too many children are facing.”

The idea has previously also been raised by other parties. MSP Ross Greer said the Scottish Greens have led calls to raise the school starting age “for many years”, arguing for a play-based kindergarten stage for children aged three to six instead.

HE said: “Evidence from successful countries like Finland suggests that pushing young children into a formal learning environment before they are ready can have negative consequences and the UK is extremely unusual for having children as young as four and half in primary school.

“So, the Greens would like to see Scotland follow the lead of other European countries where children typically start formal schooling at age six or seven, and we welcome other political parties considering following our lead.”

The Scottish Liberal Democrats led the first Holyrood debate on the issue last year. Education spokesperson Willie Rennie MSP said: “In 2018, I set out plans for Scotland to join the majority of countries around the world who start formal education at the age of six or seven.

“By learning together through play, children develop the skills needed for trickier tasks and are better prepared to shine in areas like literacy and numeracy.

“This would have long-term educational benefits at a time when education is on the wrong track.”

Teachers’ leaders say the issue of raising the school starting age is “entirely dependent on what comes before that”.

EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said: “The EIS, for example, has pressed for current nursery provision to be statutory and for teachers to be deployed across the sector to ensure the best possible start for children within our three to 18 curriculum, but the current Government has presided over a marginalisation of teachers in pre-5.

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“Our current approach should see play-based learning across the early years, including P1 and P2, but we also have Standardised National Assessments in place at the insistence of [the] Scottish Government.

“Significant discussion would be required before any change as there will be considerable suspicion on the part of teachers that such a move was being motivated by a cost-saving agenda rather than an education rationale.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “While the Government does not have plans to change the school age, it is welcome that there is an active debate on these issues, and all such contributions will form a part of the national discussion on education.

“That discussion will inform plans to reform the education system to deliver change and improve outcomes for learners.”