Toni Giugliano, the SNP’s Policy Development Convener and Sue Palmer, an educational writer, former Head Teacher and Chair of Upstart Scotland have told The National why the resolution to raise the formal school start age is so importnat for Scotland's children.

On Monday, SNP Conference will debate a resolution to raise the formal school start age and introduce a play-based kindergarten stage.

At the heart of the resolution is it’s a call for educational culture change that is vital for Scotland’s future success. Scotland’s children are Scotland’s future, and what happens in their earliest years impacts hugely on their educational potential and motivation to learn, not to mention their lifelong physical and mental health.

Early childhood is defined by the United Nations as birth to eight – ‘a time of remarkable growth with brain development at its peak’.

The UN tells us that educational provision during this critical period should be ‘more than a preparation for primary education’ – its primary aim must be ‘the holistic development of a child’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical needs’.

Two important factors in for this ‘holistic development’ are positive, nurturing adult support and opportunities for active, social play – particularly outdoors, and as often as possible in natural surroundings.

READ MORE: Pat Kane: Let the children play a little longer and forget the tests

At age four or five – when children are only halfway through their early childhood – they move from nursery to school. The ratio of adult carers to children suddenly jumps from 1:8 to 1:20, there’s far less likelihood of all-day access to outdoor play and – since this is school – children are now expected crack on with the three Rs of reading, [w]riting and reckoning.

Indeed, since 2018, Primary 1 children have been expected to sit Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSA) in literacy and numeracy.

Local authorities therefore require schools to provide data on all children’s progress in these subjects, schools feel obliged to teach the skills and parents worry if their kids aren’t learning them.

Scotland’s extraordinarily early school starting age is a hang-over from Victorian times when Westminster parliamentarians chose to herd the children of the poor into school so their mothers could work in the factories.

But modern research shows no long-term advantage in teaching the three Rs so early – and considerable risk, for many children, of long term emotional damage.

Children from low income backgrounds are particularly at risk. At age five they’re generally about a year behind their more fortunate peers in the development of spoken language and problem-solving skills.

Until these skills are successfully developed, they’ll struggle with literacy and numeracy, with adverse effects on their self-confidence and attitude to school.

READ MORE: Evidence from Finland supports delaying school entry until the age of seven

Children on mainland Europe (indeed in 88% of countries worldwide) are luckier, because they don’t start school till they’re six or seven. And children in countries with high-quality ‘kindergarten’ provision for three or four years (focusing on development, relationships and play) are particularly lucky. Such provision not only enhances educational equity and success, but also all children’s health and wellbeing.

Unfortunately, after 150 years of a too-early school start, most Scots assume it’s normal for four- and five-year-olds to sit in classrooms being taught the three Rs. But as Resolution 24 sets out – it’s neither normal nor healthy.

With huge increases in developmental delay on the horizon thanks to the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, it’s a matter of urgency that we change our national culture around early childhood.

The Scottish Government has made laudable progress in recent years – including a welcome expansion of outdoor learning, funded nursery provision so that all three- and four-year-olds have access for 1140 hours per year and the rolling out of free school meals.

It also produced guidance on play-based education for early years, including Primary 1 – “Realising the Ambition” – but it remains guidance and only some schools have followed through. The time is right to complete the jigsaw and embrace the introduction of a statutory kindergarten stage which would end the present postcode lottery on how Scotland takes forward early years education.

As long central and local government require data on five-year-olds’ performance and progress in literacy and numeracy, P1 teachers will be obliged to teach these subjects whether or not children are ready to learn.

So if we really want to close the attainment gap, improve future generations’ mental health, and truly make this the best place in the world to grow up, we need a genuine change in the ethos of education until children are at least six.

Raising the formal school start age and a statutory play-based kindergarten stage, like those in the Nordic countries, would achieve that change.

SNP delegates have the historic opportunity to back the greatest transformation our education system has seen in 150 years. We urge them to rise to the occasion.