THE Education Secretary has dismissed an SNP conference bid to raise the age at which children start school to six in Scotland.

Shirley-Anne Somerville argued she did not believe the move was necessary as currently parents can defer their children for a year if they felt they were not ready for school.

She also insisted there was a move towards more play based learning in the first year of school - Primary 1 - which supporters of the plan to raise the school starting age including the campaign group Upstart Scotland - back.

Supporters of the plan including the SNP's policy development convener Toni Giugliano believe that in the longer term pupils achieve a higher level of qualifications if they start school at six.

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

The SNP's partners in the Scottish Government, the Scottish Greens, also back increasing the age at which pupils start school as do the Lib Dems.

Ms Somerville outlined her thinking on the proposed change as she visited the Glasgow-based government agency Skills Development Scotland (SDS) today where staff are preparing to take calls tomorrow from some pupils, parents and teachers seeking advice and support on SQA exam results as well as on further study, jobs and apprenticeships.

In an interview with The Herald at the SDS office she was asked about the resolution which has been submitted to the SNP conference in October calling for the school age to be raised from four or five, to six in line with many other European countries.

"We already have in policy a play based pedagogy through our early years and indeed Up Start Scotland said in one of their newsletters that if the Scottish Government were to implement that in full we wouldn't need to change the starting age for school," she said.

"So we already have a policy that's determined to ensure we have play-based pedagogy. Clearly the implementation of that has been impacted by Covid. But that policy is there. It has begun to be implemented and we are determined to take that forward."

She added: "We have a policy that will ensure we are looking at play based  pedagogy."

Asked about whether the policy should be updated, she said: "I think that's part of the national discussion and I really welcome that national discussion that we're having.

"I think it's important to recognise we have a policy in place which indeed Up Start Scotland said if we implemented it in full would deliver much of the ambitions for this and of course we have the implementation of the paid deferment for parents who wish to keep their child in early years settings.

"So a lot of discussion I've seen in the media was because parents were concerned that they may have to send a child into primary one at a very early age but again the government is already committed and is moving forward to ensure that that is part of our early years work is that we are already ensuring that parents can be supported to defer that for a year. I think it was quite quite disappointing that that wasn't picked up in the earlier coverage too."

Under the proposal, being considered by the SNP for debate at its annual conference in Aberdeen, youngsters would remain in nursery until they are six and then move to primary school.

Mr Giugliano put forward the resolution alongside a number of SNP branches including Uddingston and Bellshill, Gilmerton and Stonehaven and Mearns.

The 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 until 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 Scottish Government recently announced a national conversation on education. You’d expect all ideas to be properly considered - even those that differ from current policy - otherwise it’s not a conversation.

Responding to Ms Somerville, Mr Giugliano said: “This debate isn’t about deferring children on an ad-hoc basis but giving every child in Scotland three years of quality, statutory kindergarten and age-appropriate education.

"The international evidence is clear - the pressures of early school starts not only widen the attainment gap, they’re contributing to a rise in mental health problems.

"The proposal is about transforming the ethos of primary 1 to ensure early years education is centred on play and outdoor learning. If we were already doing this we wouldn’t be subjecting four and five year olds to standardised national assessments.

"But I’m delighted that Scotland is having this debate - it’s exactly the sort of debate our Conference needs and I look forward to making the case to delegates in Aberdeen.”