CONTRARY to some headlines, there’s a lot to love in Scottish school education. As the parent of a six-year-old, that’s been my experience so far.

I’m well aware of the attainment gap and Scotland’s fall in the world rankings when it comes to reading, maths and science among older children, and yes, those things worry me. But they are not the whole story. In key respects, we’re moving in the right direction with Scottish schooling.

What I see when I take my daughter to school is a nurturing and creative environment where children can grow – grow unimpeded, that is, not to be pruned into a predefined shape like in the old days. Her teachers see themselves as enablers, not educational topiarists. She is able to guide her own learning, in step with her development.

That enlightened approach has become the norm as a result of Curriculum for Excellence, which has been a boon for children my daughter’s age in many respects. But it’s been a step, rather than a leap forward.

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Teachers have done a brilliant job of incorporating the child-centred, play-based approach into the Scottish system, but there’s a limit to what can be done while the care of children aged four, five and six is called “school”. It’s time to break that link.

This is not a new suggestion – far from it. The relationship between high attainment, kindergarten and later school starting age has been known for many years but it’s back at the forefront of the educational debate because both the Scottish Lib Dems and the Scottish Greens have gone into this election calling for children to start school at seven.

There are only two countries in Europe outside of Britain to make children start at four or five, Malta and Cyprus. That doesn’t automatically make the Scottish starting age a mistake, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest it is.

The international PISA rankings of attainment show a strong correlation between starting school as late as seven and high educational achievement later, as shown by the performance of Finland and Estonia.

A study in New Zealand showed that children who started formal literacy lessons at five were no better at reading aged 11, and had lower reading comprehension, than children who started at seven.

And there’s another critical potential benefit. The rate of mental health problems among young people is on the rise. Researchers suggests starting children at school at an age that’s too young for some might be contributing to that.

Groups like Upstart Scotland advocate for high quality kindergarten between three and seven, as exists in Germany and Finland. This means giving children opportunities to play, outdoors as far as possible, and offering teacher-led activities like drama, science experiments and stories. The idea is that it’s relaxed and fun, without formal instruction, though children who show an interest in literacy and numeracy are supported to pursue them. In this way, children develop confidence, social and communication skills, resilience, self-control and other attributes that equip them for lifelong learning.

SNP ministers have consistently resisted the idea of raising the school starting age, but not because they reject the thinking behind it. Quite the reverse. Maree Todd, the minister for children and young people, has praised the Upstart campaign, saying she “strongly agrees” with the benefits of play-based child-centred learning. She suggests, though, that the “inherent flexibility” of Curriculum for Excellence already gives the opportunity for these approaches to be delivered up until age seven and beyond. We’re already sort of doing kindergarten, just within the school setting, she seems to be saying.

But is this really the case? If your child is dressed in a uniform and going to school each day to spend chunks of time on formal literacy and numeracy teaching, then that is not the ethos of kindergarten, that’s the ethos of school. If you have a government that supports testing children in P1 then it’s harder still to see it as some kind of proxy kindergarten.

And while teachers understand the value of play-based learning, we parents may not. If it’s called school, we expect to see progress in formal learning, right from the start.

It’s very hard to shake off this thinking even if you disagree with it, as I have found. You worry whether your child’s learning is where it should be for their age and stage. You think in terms, not of skills and development, but of attainment. You curse yourself for it, but the niggling habit remains.

The biggest problem with all of this is that children themselves can end up feeling pressure to perform at too young an age, which can undermine their feelings about school. In most classes, there is almost a year’s difference between the age of the eldest and youngest children. Kids also develop at different rates. Starting P1, some children will be champing at the bit to read and do sums, but others will not. And children notice differences with their peers. It can dishearten them to see another child doing well at sums or reading when they feel they are struggling.

Delay formal schooling until seven, providing funded kindergarten places instead, and those children can catch up; it levels the playing field. 

We know that poverty makes it more likely that children will be delayed reaching their developmental milestones so these children will be particularly susceptible to feeling as if they don’t measure up with their peers. That hardly helps to keep them engaged or to close the attainment gap.

If we were designing a new system afresh, we simply wouldn’t start children at five.

The real barrier to raising the school age is a practical one. In other countries where the kindergarten system works well, staff are highly trained and the child-adult ratio is small. To implement it here we would need more cash at a time of straitened finances. But nurseries could be adapted and it would give teachers and childcare professionals a new professional opportunity.

Do NHS staff with decent pay and enviable pensions really deserve this pay rise?

The Lib Dems and Greens have set the agenda here but it shouldn’t scare the SNP to raise the school starting age, not with its ambition to make Scotland a progressive, outward-looking nation that does things differently. Independence may be the divisive dominant theme of this election, but surely the parliament could unite around such a worthwhile idea.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.