THE age at which children start school in Scotland may be increased in line with most other European countries, according to a plan put forward to the SNP conference.

Under the proposal, being considered by the party for debate this October in Aberdeen, youngsters would remain in nursery until they are six and then move to primary school.

Party policy development convenor Toni Giugliano put forward the resolution alongside the parties Uddingston and Bellshill, Gilmerton and Stonehaven and Mearns branch.

It calls on the Scottish Government to introduce a statutory play-based kindergarten stage for three to six year olds replacing the P1 year.

READ MORE: Kathleen Nutt: Raising school age in line with EU norms is right

Children north of the border usually start school between the ages of 4 and 5 years old, depending on when their birthday falls. The oldest in a class can have March birthdays, while the youngest may be born in January or February the following year.

But the new proposal would align Scotland with EU countries such as Germany, Italy, Spain and the Republic of Ireland where the formal school starting age is six. In many other EU countries including Denmark, Sweden, Estonia, Finland and Poland children begin school at seven.

The resolution argues that international evidence shows that children in countries with older school starting ages reach a higher standard than those with younger starts. 

It also notes that children in European countries who attend play-based kindergarten till six or seven have higher levels of health and wellbeing, while an an early start to formal education is linked to the development of social, emotional and mental health problems.

The motion urges the SNP conference to note that Scotland and the UK are “outliers in Europe” in starting formal education at four or five.

The resolution, seen by The Herald, goes on to say: “Conference recognises the body of international evidence in favour of play-based early years education. 

"Active, social play is children’s natural learning drive and helps develop physical fitness, social skills, cognitive capacities and personal qualities such as creativity, problem solving, self-regulation and emotional resilience. 

"Conference notes that children in European countries who attend play-based kindergarten till six or seven enjoy higher levels of health and wellbeing. 

"Conference further notes that Scotland and the UK are outliers in Europe in starting formal education at four or five, and acknowledges that since international PISA comparisons began, countries with later school starting ages have performed better than those with earlier starts."

It claims the plan would help to close the attainment gap after the Scottish government came under fire earlier this year for abandoning a flagship pledge to close it by 2026.

The resolution notes: “In order to succeed in closing the attainment gap, early years education must be based on relationship-centred, child-led, play-based environments with a greater focus on outdoor learning.”

It concludes: “Conference therefore calls on the Scottish Government to introduce a statutory play-based kindergarten stage for three to six year olds – similar to early years education in Nordic countries – and raise the formal school starting age to six.

“This will provide a true level playing field for all of Scotland’s children, giving every child time to develop the skills and capacities that underpin educational success, improve long-term outcomes and give every child the best start in life.”

Last year, the Scottish Greens pledged for the school starting age to be raised to seven as part of their 2021 May parliamentary elections manifesto.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Liberal Democrats are calling for the starting age to be raised to seven years old. The party argued the current practice dated back to the Victorian era.

A decision on whether the motion will be included on the final SNP conference agenda will be decided by the party's Conferences committee in the coming weeks.

The committee will be guided by the scoring from a choice exercise where all registered conference delegates can indicate a rating of each potential resolution from the provisional agenda published last week.

The UK is currently out of step with other countries in expecting children to start school at four or five.

Experts in favour of the status quo argue that young children are capable of learning the more formal skills inherent in the school curriculum and that starting school early enables children to get a head start in learning. 

They also claim an early start provides an opportunity for children from less advantaged backgrounds to make up the deficit in their academic skills.

Early school starting age is also thought to be popular among some parents, who believe the development is good for their children, while they no longer face expensive nursery fees.

On the other hand, concerns have been raised about the appropriateness of a school environment for young children with fears introducing children not ready for a formal education can be counterproductive and put them off learning. 

School starting ages around Europe:
Austria - 6
Belgium - 6
England and Wales - 4 or 5
Estonia - 7
Denmark - 7
Finland - 7
Germany - 6
Italy - 6
Northern Ireland - 4 or 5
Poland - 7
Portugal - 6
Republic of Ireland - 6
Scotland - 4 or 5
Spain - 6 
Sweden - 7