This article appears as part of the Lessons to Learn newsletter.

This week we’ve been exclusively covering an attempt to spark a radical shift in Scottish education.

SNP MSP Kaukab Stewart (who, as it happens, was a primary school teacher for nearly thirty years) has submitted a parliamentary motion calling for an increased school starting age and the establishment of a universal kindergarten system in Scotland – and it attracted cross-party support in less than twenty-four hours!

Maybe that shouldn’t be a big surprise, though, because in recent years it seems like this has gone from being a niche concern to a mainstream and widely-accepted position. It is explicitly backed by the Greens and the Lib Dems, and was supported at the 2022 SNP conference.

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People involved in Scottish Labour have told me in the past that they would be in favour of such a change, and I’ve even heard a suggestion that some in the Scottish Tories think it’s a good idea. Could we be about to see a rare outbreak of cross-party consensus?

Is it a good idea? Well it’s certainly true that we send kids to school very young compared with most other countries. There is always a tendency to assume that the way we do things must be the right way, and that the rest of the world must be trying to emulate us (a hangover of the arrogance of Empire) but that isn’t the case.

Most countries send their children to school at six, and some (including a few with particularly impressive education systems) wait until seven. The UN regards early childhood as continuing until the age of eight.

There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that our early start confers measurable advantages on children, but there are concerns that sending them into formal education too soon can have negative repercussions in areas like mental health and personal development.

Nonetheless, changes would be complicated and the process would take a very long time – probably at least two full parliaments. But maybe it’s worth it?

We’ll have more on this as it develops, and would love to know what you think?

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A thank you to the men behind the lens

I want to take the chance this week to thank people whose work is integral to what we do, but who are rarely given enough credit for their vital contribution: our photographers. I’ve recently been lucky enough to work with Colin Mearns and Gordon Terris, and on both occasions was reminded of just how important they are.

Colin joined me at The Herald offices in Glasgow to interview Patricia Anderson and Diane Delaney, who were celebrating the success of their campaign for full funding of deferred school entry, and put together a video package that helped bring this fantastic story to even more people. I might have been asking the questions, but everything else about it was down to him.

Last week, Gordon and I visited a journalism class at a school just outside Glasgow. The timing was particularly good because the pupils had just started the photography module – and in walked a hugely experienced snapper from The Herald! Gordon was happy to talk to them and answer their questions, and of course he still got some brilliant photos for our forthcoming feature!

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It's perhaps a bit too easy to forget just how skilled people like Colin and Gordon are, and I’m not just talking about composing powerful images. They both have a remarkable ability to make people feel at ease, and encourage them to open up. If I manage to become half as good as they are at all that, I’ll be a very happy man.

In Case You Missed It…

Over the last few days (and for a few more to come) The Herald has been running a major, multi-part special report called The New Highland Clearances, led by senior reporter Caroline Wilson.

It is, obviously, a provocative headline, and one that should never be used lightly – but it is also a phrase that people from the Highlands and Islands use regularly when talking about what is happening to their homes and communities. I heard it way back in 2018 when I was travelling around the country for my first book, A Scottish Journey, and if anything it has become more common over the years.

Part of our coverage has, of course, looked at education. Yesterday, a focus on depopulation included a look at a school with capacity for 182 pupils – but just 33 children currently passing through its doors.

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Plummeting local populations have huge impacts right across communities, and schools are no different – in fact, they can easily become part of a vicious feedback loop, where falling school rolls lead to restricted opportunities for young people, which in turn keeps families away. It is a complicated problem but, at its heart, it’s a question of resource allocation and, as always, political priorities.

Today we’re covering the fifth anniversary of the community-built school in Strontian, Ardnamurchan. On the one hand, this is a great success story about a community coming together to provide the facilities that their children deserve; on the other, it’s a physical symbol of state neglect. Go read it for yourself and let us know what you think.

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