By Sue Palmer

LAST month, the Chinese government clamped down on early years education. Kindergartens (for children aged three to seven) had started looking too much like school. So the Ministry of Education ordered them to stop teaching the three Rs, provide play-based learning opportunities… and absolutely NO testing.

This edict was based on international evidence that – up to the age of about seven – the best educational environment to support children’s long-term health, well-being and educational success is relationship-centred, play-based and, as often as possible, outdoors. These are the foundations upon which Finland’s world-famous educational system is based and they’re what all early years experts recommend. Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, for instance, describes a play-based approach until children are six.

Unfortunately, this hasn’t been implemented in the majority of Scottish schools because of our cultural attachment to cracking on with the three Rs at the earliest opportunity. So, has our Government insisted that schools catch up with the times? Um… no. Instead – in response to political panic at the widening attainment gap between rich and poor – it’s introduced national standardised tests for literacy and numeracy in Primary 1.

Testing mania is rampant in the English-speaking world, and national testing at primary level always has the same effect: schools teach to the tests, the curriculum narrows and children, teachers and parents grow increasingly anxious about educational performance. Ten years ago, Australia assured parents (as Scotland did this year) that their newly-introduced testing regime would be different. It wasn’t: there were reports last month of two-year-olds being tutored in phonics.

In England, where testing has driven the educational system for nearly two decades, psychologists now link test-generated anxiety to the mental health crisis among children and young people. The implications of stress and anxiety for long-term well-being are particularly worrying for Primary 1. It’s through positive, non-judgemental relationships and exploratory play during the early years (defined by the UN as 0-8) that children develop the emotional resilience to see them through setbacks and challenges throughout their lives.

Young children’s need for time and space to play has never been greater. There are few opportunities in 21st century Britain for the active, social, self-directed play children enjoyed in the past, and which science now recognises as a biological necessity. Traffic-clogged streets, changing communities and parental working patterns have combined to drive playtime indoors, where it is usually sedentary and screen-based. Not surprisingly, research is now linking changes in habits of play to the escalation of mental health issues. This is why Upstart Scotland launched our Play Not Tests for P1 campaign. Quite apart from the knock-on harmful effects for children’s health and the evidence that children who “fail” at P1 tend to go on failing throughout their education, the British Educational Research Association explained recently that standardised baseline testing of this age-group “has little predicative power and dubious validity”.

The simple fact is that you can’t standardise a five-year-old. Before the age of about seven, children are still developing – physically, emotionally, socially and cognitively – and the speed and sequence of development depends on individual genetic make-up and experiences. So it’s up to the adults who care for them to ensure the environment for this age group is as positive and supportive as possible.

Until our Government drops the P1 tests and instead insists on the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence’s play-based Early Level in every primary school, Upstart urges parents not to risk their children’s long-term well-being. Check out and exercise your right to opt out of the tests.

* Sue Palmer is a former primary headteacher, author of Toxic Childhood and chair of Upstart Scotland.