A CALL to raise the formal school starting age to six has been backed by SNP members, with the “door left open” to increase it by another year if evidence shows it works.

Delegates in Aberdeen voted overwhelmingly to back a resolution which called for the Scottish Government to introduce a “statutory play-based kindergarten stage” for three to six-year-olds, similar to early years education in Nordic countries.

An amendment which called for the option of extending this to seven-years-old to be kept open in the future if this is successfully implemented was also backed by SNP members.

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Toni Giugliano, the SNP’s policy convener, told the conference the UK is one of the few countries in the world that sees four and five-year-olds in classrooms and “sat behind desks and assessed”.

He said: “We have come to accept that as the norm, it is not the norm – it is a Westminster policy that dates back to the 1870s.

“Victorian politicians who chose an early school start so that children’s mothers could provide cheap labour in factories.

“A policy that was never rooted in what is right for children, but in the narrow economic needs of the time.

“So much has changed – we now live in a fast paced digital age with all the pressures that come with it.

“Our education system cannot simply exist to build a workforce, but healthy thriving children too.”

Giugliano said research had shown that four and five year-olds were “not developmentally ready” to face the pressures and structure of the formal school system and starting early can lead to social, emotional and mental health problems.

He was met with applause when he told delegates: “I am asking you today to bring Scotland into line with the rest of Europe and vote for the creation of a funded, universal kindergarten stage for all three to six year olds.

“It will mean that every child in Scotland, not just some, with have access to three years of funded, quality pre-school education followed by six years of formal primary education.

“It won’t be a silver bullet, but a national kindergarten stage will give children blighted by poverty and trauma a fighting chance, because make no mistake it is the poorest kids who lose out the most right now.

“If we want to narrow the attainment gap, the answer doesn’t lie in piling on an academic pressure from day one, it lies in nurture, well-being and tackling inequalities head on.”

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He added: “Our Westminster made school start age is passed its sell-by date.”

The amendment to the resolution called for the Scottish Government to “keep the option of subsequently transitioning to a starting age of seven if the evidence gathered in introducing a starting age of six warrants such a further change.”

Delegate Chris Hanlon said many countries in Europe had a higher formal school starting age than the UK – but it was seven-years-old in the best performing countries.

He added: “While we are in the process of implementing this I think it is reasonable to watch what is happening, measure what the results are and to leave the door open to continue onto seven, if that is something which seems like it is going to be productive and it is going to be the best thing for the next generation of our kids.”