Education writer James McEnaney talks to Kaukab Stewart MSP. The former teacher has submitted a motion calling for the school starting age to be increased and for a universal kindergarten system to be established across Scotland.


The SNP passed a motion at their 2022 conference supporting “a statutory play-based kindergarten stage for three to six-year-olds” and an increase in the formal school starting age to six. Has any work been taking place on this since then?

I’m proud the SNP debated this at our 2022 conference, it was a well-informed debate and members backed the resolution.  However, the current parliament was elected on the 2021 manifesto, which predates the Party adopting the policy of introducing a later school-start age.  As this is now SNP policy, I would expect to see it form part of the Party’s next manifesto for Holyrood, as part of a wider commitment to supporting the development of children through play-based learning – that’s why I am pushing to have an open debate about this and get everyone that wants to, to be involved.

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SNP MSP wants later school start and national kindergarten

Why do some want to raise the school starting age?

Do we really need to make this sort of change? Don’t we already have the early years expansion and lots of play-based learning in primary schools? What difference would a kindergarten system and increased school age really make?

We’ve a great track record on developing early years education and play-based learning.  Many schools already have this built into their curriculum, and many nurseries have great play based settings and outdoor learning. In terms of childcare, the 1,140 hours expansion has had a big impact on families and on the opportunities children have to play and develop social skills.  But this is all done under a system that was first developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  We now have a better understanding of the needs of children in terms of their overall development and the importance of play.  That’s why we need to seriously discuss a kindergarten stage that is built specifically to the needs of our wee ones,  so that we can have age-appropriate learning opportunities and settings that benefit all children instead of continuing to work with a current system that was set up in the last century.

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Surely if children start school later they won’t learn as much and standards will decline?

Actually, there’s a wealth of evidence to the contrary.  A play-based kindergarten stage of early years education, with a later formal school-start age, will enable children to develop the vital thinking, social, interpersonal, and problem solving skills that will unlock their learning capability by the time they’re ready to begin formal education.  Under the current system, a child as young as four could be expected to sit still in class for almost an hour.  This is of no benefit to the child whatsoever, where so much more can be gained from experiences of fun, active and social play – particularly with a focus on outdoor play.  Countries that have similar models tend to perform better on international PISA comparisons than those which have earlier formal school starting ages.  The evidence points to an improvement in school standards and educational outcomes for children who benefit from a kindergarten style model in early years. We have one of the earliest formal starting ages and whilst much has been done to address the poverty related attainment gap, it remains a huge challenge, perhaps it is time to take a closer look at our current structures and systems and discuss if there are better models such as a kindergarten stage.

The Herald: Kaukab Stewart MSP

Establishing a national kindergarten system sounds like a difficult, and potentially expensive, process. This clearly isn’t something that is going to be done before the next election, but what sort of timeline might be reasonable if your proposal does gain the necessary support?

This debate, first and foremost, needs to be about the benefits or otherwise of implementing a kindergarten stage for children in Scotland.  I’m confident that a discussion around this will help colleagues across all parties understand the massive benefits this could bring to children, which will encourage political consensus around it.  If we decide this is the right thing to do for our children, we shouldn’t avoid doing it simply because there might be a cost attached to implementing it.  We need to be bolder than that.  The primary aim of this conversation is to discuss openly and honestly the benefits of introducing a kindergarten stage, that’s it.  I know that such a radical change will take many, many years as the implications are wide ranging. The debate has been ongoing but by promoting a national discussion around this, I hope to bring wider attention to the kindergarten stage here in Scotland.

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Other parties have already discussed and declared their support for this in the past. Is this the sort of issue where cross-party consensus will be important?

Cross-party consensus will be important as this isn’t about party politics, it’s about doing what’s right for early years education, being bold where we need to be, and discussing seriously how we invest in and support the future generations of our country.  I have already spoken to the policy leads of parties across the chamber in the Scottish Parliament and there is a clear appetite for this discussion.  I’ve also had meetings with children’s poverty charities and trade union representatives – with further meetings scheduled – on the benefits of a kindergarten stage, and there’s an obvious interest in engaging in the discussion.  However, I want this to reach out further than only policymakers, but also to teachers, parents, academics, and  children themselves should be having  a conversation about how we shape their future.

Can we expect to see this policy in the next SNP manifesto for the Scottish Parliament?

I am hoping this national discussion will gain some momentum and I look forward to hearing different views and perspectives – that will absolutely help me to expand on the detail of a policy which has been adopted by the SNP, and which I would expect to see appear in the party’s next Holyrood manifesto.  However, this issue is much bigger than any one party – which is why I am looking for this to debate to be as wide-reaching as possible.  I’m looking for cross-party support on my motion to have the debate in Parliament itself, but beyond that, I’d like to see each Party adopt the policy in their manifestoes for the next Holyrood election.  This will be a significant, radical, yet necessary change to how we do early years, we need as many people involved in the process as possible.