A prominent SNP MSP has called for the school starting age to be raised and a universal kindergarten stage to be introduced across Scotland, The Herald can exclusively reveal.

A motion filed by Glasgow Kelvin MSP Kaukab Stewart calls for a “national conversation on early years education” and argues that a new approach could help to tackle Scotland’s long-standing educational attainment gap.

Ms Stewart, who was a teacher for nearly thirty years before entering parliament in 2021, told The Herald that Scotland needs a “healthy, open debate” about improving early learning in the country, and that there is interest in the matter “across political divides”.

Read more: Why do some want to raise the school starting age?

The motion, which has now been circulated to other MSPs, states that the existing school starting age makes Scotland an “outlier in Europe” – at present, children here can start school as young as four and must do so by the age of five. It goes on to point out that “the UN defines early childhood as birth to eight years old” and suggests that the establishment of a kindergarten system could “contribute to closing the attainment gap” by helping to provide “a true level playing field for all of Scotland’s children.”

READ MORE: Judge them on their record? What the data says about SNP education reforms

Closing the attainment gap has been a key SNP goal since 2017, but data shows that they have fallen short on a promise to do so. Ms Stewart’s motion paints reforms to early learning, including a universal kindergarten system, as the missing piece of the puzzle.

She refers to “the body of international evidence on the benefits of play-based early years education”, arguing that it helps to develop “physical fitness, social skills, cognitive capacities and personal qualities” in young children.

The University of Cambridge published data in 2022 that suggests play-based learning can be just as effective as teacher-led lessons in growing pupils’ literacy and numeracy skills. The same study also found that young people might develop maths skills even more quickly through guided play.

In her motion, Ms Stewart said that recent PISA data suggests countries with later starting ages perform better than countries where children are sent to school aged four or five.

READ MORE: Scotland not alone as PISA scores reflect steady global decline in education

SNP members voted in favour of a similar policy at the party conference in Aberdeen in 2022, but there has been little action towards implementation since then.

Tuesday’s motion is the latest development in an ongoing discussion over when children should start school and how Scotland should structure early learning.

It mentions Upstart Scotland, an alliance of parents, educators and health and social work professionals, which has been a leading campaigner on this issue.

A spokesman for the group said that they welcome the motion and hope that it sparks cross-party action.

“Upstart Scotland has been advocating and campaigning to raise the formal starting age of primary education and the introduction of a developmental, play based experience provided by a kindergarten stage.

“We hope that this motion will raise public awareness and thus recognise the need for change.”

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Speaking exclusively to The Herald, Ms Stewart accepted that her proposals required long-term changes, arguing that “children deserve us taking the time to get this right".

“Having been a teacher for nearly three decades, I have a good idea about what works and where we need to have a healthy, open debate about improvements.

“Early years is the most crucial developmental stage for children – it really defines how each child is going to develop and grow through their lives.  The UN considers this to be from birth to aged 8, yet we’re sending children into formal education settings at the age of 5 – and some even younger than that.

“Countries that have later school-start ages outperform countries with earlier start ages on international PISA comparisons – and many of those, such as Germany and Finland, have a play-based kindergarten stage or similar until ages 6 or 7.

“I have engaged with MSP colleagues across all parties on this issue, and I know there is interest across political divides to looking at doing something differently to give children in Scotland the best possible start in life. 

“I’m confident my motion will receive cross-party support and look forward to it being debated in the Chamber, so we can have an up-front and honest discussion about early years and the benefits of a kindergarten stage for Scotland.

“I also look forward to this becoming a wider debate, involving all interested parties – not just policy makers – but parents, teachers academics, and children too.”