LAST week I spoke about delaying the formal teaching of literacy skills until the second or even third year of primary school, arguing that children should be at least six years old before being confronted with the complicated tasks of learning to read and write.

The reaction from some quarters was entirely predictable. A spokesperson from the Campaign for Real Education – an ominous title if ever I heard one – dismissed this as "trendy nonsense". But the problem for such traditionalists is that my view isn't trendy – it is supported by rigorous scientific and neurological evidence, as well as comparative studies across more than 26 countries, quite apart from forming the bedrock of highly successful educational systems like the one enjoyed by Finland's children, where they do indeed learn to read and write only at the age of seven.

It is high time we put irrational prejudice aside, and looked dispassionately at what the data is actually telling us. The only agenda here is doing the very best we can for our children. If we really want successful learners, we should put the recipient at the centre of the system – so that the system fits the child and not the other way around. I am happy to say that Scotland's new Curriculum For Excellence puts in place the basic conditions to achieve this, and has been designed on the basis of evidence, not nostalgia. There are always challenges in implementing change, but we should be glad we have it.

Of course, everybody has an opinion about education. Aside from politics, football and the relationship between the sexes, it is probably the most contested area of our social and national life. Rarely is anything positive said. Instead, the discourse about education is primarily characterised by negativity, scepticism, outrage and sometimes even disgust. Education is a nexus around which our anxieties about children, moral values and other social, historical and cultural issues swirl. We understand that education plays a large part in shaping society, from our own employability to the nation's productivity, but we seem to find it intensely difficult to settle the basic questions of what education actually is, what it is really for, and how it should be delivered. In truth, these are complicated issues.

My own view is that when traditionalists fulminate against change, they express an anxiety about how society is developing away from the social values they cherish, and which formed them. What may be best for today's children is lost in the middle of this preoccupation. This was brought home to me the other day on a radio phone-in show, where one person put forward the opinion that by the age of five children should have had enough of play. Play at school was harmful: school should be about banishing all that and getting the children to buckle down. Such views are utterly terrifying. A huge body of work by some of the brightest intellects of the modern age – from Johan Huizinga to Jean Piaget to our very own Pat Kane – demonstrates that play is an essential ingredient of learning and, in fact, of any creative endeavour, whether that is baking a cake, making a poem, or constructing a microchip. When scientists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov won the Nobel Prize for using a block of carbon and some Scotch tape to create graphene – a substance that could revolutionise computer technology – the Nobel committee commented: "Playfulness is one of their hallmarks. With the building blocks they had at their disposal they attempted to create something new, sometimes even by just allowing their brains to meander aimlessly."

Traditionalists dislike this truth because they cannot conceive of a learning experience which is not strictly regimented. They think, wrongly, that play is achieved at the expense of educational rigour, even though these two terms are far from being mutually exclusive. And because their model of education is essentially punitive, they are intensely suspicious of the idea that learning ought to be pleasurable. But the truth is, there is no deep learning or discovery without pleasure or play, particularly at an early age. This goes to the heart of how and when we should be teaching our children to read and write.

THE argument has a long pedigree. In the mid-1700s, Rousseau observed: "Reading is the scourge of childhood and almost the only occupation we know to prescribe - A child is hardly interested in perfecting the instrument with which we torture it; but make that instrument serve his pleasures and he will soon apply himself, in spite of you." Today, we are still stuck with the same dilemma of how to teach reading and writing in an effective and entertaining way. The new curriculum gives us the tools and the space to solve this dilemma, but we are not quite there yet.

Before we begin to address this issue, let's understand exactly why reading is so important. It may seem trite to say so, but it is still worth repeating: if language is the ground of thought, then reading is a principle ground of learning. Reading improves our communication skills, and gives us efficient access to vital information and social knowledge: it is difficult to imagine modern democracy without it.

The fact that we read at all is amazing. In her groundbreaking book Proust And The Squid – The Story And Science Of The Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf writes: "We were never born to read ... Human beings invented reading only a few thousand years ago. And with this invention, we changed the very organisation of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species." Whichever way you look at it, that's not a bad result.

Nevertheless, the difficulties of attempting to teach a child aged four or five to read and write are many. We know from neuroscience that while some children may be ready to learn these skills, the majority are not, for physiological reasons to do with the development of the brain.

Citing European research which showed that children who began learning to read at five did less well than those who started at seven, Wolf concludes that teaching a child to read before six years of age is counterproductive.

The problem is not hard to understand, but it does require us to make a vital distinction: teaching someone how to read does not make them a reader. In fact, it's Pavlovian: teaching a young child to read before they are ready might put them off altogether, because they experience this process as intense difficulty, and it takes at least two years before they begin to master the skills, by which time they have hardly associated reading and writing with pleasure and profit, quite apart from having their confidence severely battered.

Naturally there is strong evidence for this. Around a quarter of the Scottish students surveyed by the PISA international study of pupil performance considered reading to be a waste of time, and almost half (46%) said they read only when they had to. Compared with other countries, Scotland performed below average with students deriving less enjoyment from reading: only 26% described reading as one of their favourite hobbies.

The children who miss out the most are those from low-income households, who have had poorer chances of healthy early development and may not have had access to books at home. They start nursery and then school at a considerable disadvantage. By nursery age, a gap of more than 32 million words already separates some children in linguistically impoverished homes from their more fortunate peers.

They also miss out on the reciprocal relationship between emotional development and reading, because young children primarily learn to experience and manage new feelings through exposure to books, which in turn prepares them to understand more complex emotions. This period of childhood (three to five years) provides the foundation for one of the most important social, emotional and cognitive skills: the ability to take on someone else's perspective. For many children across Scotland, this is simply not happening, reinforcing damaging social divisions and cycles of poverty.

Though exact figures are hard to come by, a literacy working group set up in 2008 suggests that as many as 18% of Scottish children (around 10,000 each year) leave school without having mastered literacy skills. The social and economic costs of this failure are astronomical: between 50% and 70% of prisoners in Scotland are functionally illiterate. It costs around £40,000 annually to keep one person in jail. With the Scottish prison population at 8500, the maths is frightening, before we even begin to factor in the cost of unproductive lives, as well as the policing, court and prison service running costs. Not tackling this problem where we most easily can – in nursery and school – is simply not an option.

Fortunately, in Scotland, in stark contrast to England, the Government and civil service are truly committed to creating improvement. In addition to the new curriculum, which embeds literacy across every subject area, the Scottish Government has set up the Standing Literacy Commission chaired by Sir Harry Burns, chief medical officer for Scotland. The Learning Directorate has set up a situation where outstanding practice in dealing with illiteracy, by North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire Councils among others, can be shared across local authorities.

This is a fantastic start. But we also need to seriously consider what happens in the first two years of primary education. Together with early intervention, deferring the formal teaching of literacy skills until children are actually ready for it is probably the single most effective measure we can take to ensure that our educational system does its best for all children, regardless of background, and produces readers who will learn through an engagement with literature throughout their lives.

BUT let's be clear: I am not advocating that children in Scotland do not start school until they are seven, even if this is the Finnish model. Across Scandinavia children are kept in kindergarten for these two years, looked after by professionals who must have completed a degree in child development and psychology to be employed, and who are thus able to successfully engage their pupils in real learning through creative play with language and the wider world. By the time these children start school they are well prepared to acquire formal literacy skills, if they haven't already, since any child that shows an interest between the ages of five and seven will be encouraged to do so as a matter of course. The result is that once formal schooling begins, literacy is usually quickly mastered within a year by the vast majority of pupils.

Clearly, implementing this kind of system in Scotland would be very difficult. But in a sense we don't need to, because the Curriculum for Excellence would theoretically enable the same kind of approach in the first two years of primary school. During this time our children could acquire the vital skills of curiosity about the world, verbal dexterity and reasoning in describing it, storytelling in being imaginative with it, and a familiarity with the alphabet and different language forms, registers and modes. They would then come to reading and writing with confidence and enthusiasm, secure in their own power to communicate and interpret.

When considering whether this is a good idea or not, let's remember that Scotland was one of the first countries in the world to achieve mass literacy. It has consistently been a place of enlightenment and innovation. Our generation needs to deliver on that proud tradition. We want our children to be smart, and to be able to deal with the challenges of 21st-century life. So let's be smart ourselves and have the courage to follow the evidence.

Marc Lambert is the CEO of Scottish Book Trust. He is on the Standing Literacy Commission, and chaired the Excellence Group for the teaching of English. That report can be accessed at: The PISA research on pupil performance can be found at The section Achievements And Attitudes In Reading is cited above.