SNP MSP Kaukab Stewart has submitted a parliamentary motion calling for an increased school starting age and the establishment of a universal kindergarten system in Scotland. Here, education writer James McEnaney explains why some people believe that such a reform is necessary.

What is the current situation?

In Scotland children can start school at either four or five years old, although attendance is not compulsory until the start of the school year after a child’s fifth birthday. In practice, where a child’s birthday fell before the start of January, they would generally be expected to start school at four years old, whereas those whose birthdays fall after that date would start school the following year.

In recent years, however, more and more parents have been exercising their right to delay the point at which their child starts school. Campaigners from the Give Them Time group have recently celebrated their success in securing additional nursery funding for those who choose to defer school entry for children who have not yet turned five.

READ MORE: How campaigners changed the law for school starters

Is the Scottish approach unusual?

In a word: yes. A very small number of countries send children to school as young as four or five, while the vast majority do so at six years old and a significant minority wait until children are seven.

In Europe, the overwhelming majority of countries send their children to school at six, but some of those with particularly high-performing education systems, including Estonia, Finland, Poland and Denmark, wait a further year.

Read more: SNP MSP wants later school start and national kindergarten

But we're talking about education here - surely the sooner they start school, the better?

Actually, that doesn't really seem to be the case. Various studies have shown little or no long-term benefit to starting schooling at a very young age, and there are concerns that doing so could be having knock-on effects in areas like personal development and mental health. A much-cited study from New Zealand found that children who were taught to read from five years old did no better than those who started at seven, but that by the time they were eleven, the ones who started later had a more positive attitude to reading in general.

But what will the children be doing if we wait longer to send them to school?

Some people, especially those with young children, may worry about the implications of increasing the school starting age, especially if it means that they will need to spend more money on childcare, but a key part of this proposal is the establishment of a kindergarten system across the country.

According to supporters, this new system would cater to children up to the age of six, replicating or even expanding upon existing levels of provision for those who have not yet reached school age, and replacing the hours that four and five year olds would previously have spent in primary schools.

READ MORE: Deferred entry for P1 pupils doubles following campaign

Is this going to happen any time soon?

Definitely not. The sorts of changes that are being proposed would represent a major shift in the landscape of Scottish education, and it would take many years to make them a reality. Opening a universal kindergarten system would have implications for staffing, both in terms of numbers of workers and the qualifications we would expect them to hold. If we want people to be able to become fully qualified, degree-holding kindergarten teachers, for example, we would need time to develop a programme for that and then more time to allow enough people to successfully complete it.

Even relatively modest changes in education can take a long time to implement, and a shift on the scale being proposed here couldn’t be completed before the next election – or even before the next one after that.

So is it worth all the time and effort it would take?

It just might be – sometimes the things worth doing are difficult, after all, and building a better country for our children is something we should be willing to work for.

It also makes sense to start at the beginning. In the last few years we’ve heard plenty of promises of reform, but most of the focus has been on the later years of high school. Perhaps it would be better to concentrate on getting the foundations right?

We also know that the ‘attainment gaps’ that have dominated our national education discussions, and politics, in recent years are not created in schools – they already exist by the time children set foot in their first classroom.

The question to ask is whether or not we think that a reformed early years approach, with a later school starting date and a universal, play-based kindergarten, would make things better for children in Scotland.

If the answer is yes, then how could reform not be worth the time and effort?