A CALL to raise the school age in Scotland to give children “the very best start in life” has been backed by a range of leading voices, including experts in public health, play and early years.

In a letter published today in the Sunday National, campaign organisation Upstart Scotland argues a statutory kindergarten stage for all three to six-year-olds, followed by a later school-start, would be “transformational” for children.

Former children’s commissioner Tam Baillie (pictured), chief executive of Children 1st Mary Glasgow and John Carnochan, co-founder of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit are among those backing the move.

Other signatories include professor of public health John Frank and early years specialist Dr Lynn McNair, both at Edinburgh University, Cathy McCulloch, co-director of Scotland’s Children’s Parliament and developmental neuroscientist Dr Suzanne Zeedyk.

Sunday National contributors Gerry Hassan, professor of social change at Glasgow Caledonian University, musician and writer Pat Kane and broadcaster and journalist Lesley Riddoch have also given their backing to the letter.

Outgoing  Children & Young People's Commissioner for Scotland Tam Baillie.

The debate over raising the school age has been triggered by a motion which has been submitted for debate at the SNP conference in October.

However, last week Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said she did not believe the move was necessary as parents can currently defer their children for a year if they feel they are not ready for school and there is a move towards more play-based learning in primary one.

The letter argues that “pressurising young children to read, write and reckon before they’re developmentally ready is counter-productive” and says the “all-round” development of five-year-olds should be assessed instead.

“And if we really want to close the attainment gap and reduce the number of additional needs in schools and the terrifying rise in mental health problems among children and young people, we should turn Curriculum for Excellence’s ‘early level’ into a statutory, relationship-centred, play-based kindergarten stage.

“Preserving the status quo is not an option.”

The letter concludes: “It isn’t about deferring children on an ad-hoc basis or using the words ‘play-based’ to describe vastly different pedagogical practices. It’s about giving every child in Scotland three years of quality, statutory kindergarten and developmentally-appropriate care and education.”

Sue Palmer, chair of Upstart Scotland, said: “We have always realised this isn’t just an educational issue – it is a health issue, it is a social justice issue.

“It is sustainability as we need to get the children outdoors in the natural world in order for them to learn about it and care about it.

“It is the beginning of arts, it is your disposition to learning – it is everything.”

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SNP policy convener Toni Giugliano, who is one of those who has put forward the SNP conference resolution, said there is “clear” widespread support for the idea.

He added: “This debate isn’t about deferring children on a case-by-case basis as was suggested by the Scottish Government, but giving every child in Scotland three years of quality, statutory kindergarten and age-appropriate education.

“Scotland wants and needs this step-change and I urge SNP Conference to rise to the occasion.”