Cynics may say there’s little real point heading to Aberdeen in October for the first in-person SNP conference in three years. There’ll be set-piece speeches, self-congratulatory motions and carefully manicured agendas.

Sure. But the journey will be worth it if one potentially transformational motion gets backing this week as motions and amendments are ranked by delegates. It’s the proposal by party policy development convener, Toni Giugliano, to raise the school starting age to six, bringing Scotland into line with most of Europe and almost all academic research and out of line with the rest of the UK.

Scottish children currently start school at the age of four or five years old. But in all of our Nordic neighbours, Ireland, Spain, and Germany, formal schooling starts after well-funded, play-based kindergarten at the age of six or seven.

Indeed, just 12 per cent of countries send five-year-olds to school. Almost all are former parts of the British Empire, unreflectively clinging to a model devised in the 1870s by a government intent on releasing women from childcare as quickly as possible, to put them to work in factories instead. Child welfare played no part in plumping for a school age of 4 or 5. That’s why Ireland and Cyprus (former British colonies) recently moved away from the British model to the European norm of 6 or 7.

It’s high time Scotland joined them and ditched this dodgy, archaic practice. Why? Because children learn vital soft skills like sharing, communication, cooperation, creativity and confidence through play long before they can finally control motor functions sufficiently to sit still and start formal education. The urge to stuff the three Rs into 4 and 5-year-old brains may be understandable in a competitive, dog-eat-dog world, but it’s not rational, helpful, kind or productive.

Evidence suggests a premature start at school is linked to social, emotional and mental health problems as children are forced into formal learning – and failing – because they simply aren’t ready. Yes, at five and seven Britain’s ‘force-fed’ kids are ahead in literacy. But by nine, play-based European kids are soaring ahead – and they stay ahead for the rest of their school careers and their lives.

The vital importance of getting early years right was recognised by Nicola Sturgeon in 2014, when to the surprise of many, she announced that this change – to fully fund childcare – would be the single biggest gain delivered by independence. She wasn’t wrong.

And yet the SNP leadership appears lukewarm about this game-changing proposal. Three weeks ago, the Education Secretary told this newspaper that a later starting age was unnecessary because parents can defer children for a year if they’re not ready and there’s already been a move towards play-based learning in primary one.

So, is that good enough? Well, no. The Scottish Government’s “Realising the Ambition, Being Me” guidance for primary schools is highly regarded. But it’s just guidance, and according to Sue Palmer, the former headteacher who created the Upstart Scotland campaign, “it can seldom be fully implemented due to the Scottish National Standardised Assessments (‘the notorious P1 tests’) and accompanying age-related benchmarks. Local authorities need evidence of progress against these benchmarks, so schools are under great pressure to ‘help’ that progress along.”

In short, well-meaning guidelines are being contradicted by a compulsion to judge, measure and impose tick-box tests on five year-olds - doing untold damage.

Many primary one teachers joined the Upstart campaign because they felt horrified by the impact formal learning is having on four and five-year-olds in their care – but contracts stop them from speaking out.

Meanwhile, Scottish ministers and the educational establishment are so desperate to fend off opposition attacks and close the attainment gap, as promised by Nicola Sturgeon, that they’re producing pressure on ever younger bairns to ‘perform’ instead of taking the bold evidence-backed decision to ditch the ‘force-fed’ approach completely and let children find their feet (quite literally) before starting school.

Are Scottish parents really so conservative and blind to the real needs of children that they’d oppose such a change?

I’d guess not, but parents do have a real and legitimate worry – financing more years of Europe’s most expensive childcare – and that may be the real driver of ‘traditional’ attitudes across the whole of Britain.

It has to change. Many four and five year olds already receive education cash for schooling. The main new expense would be covering extra years to create a quality kindergarten stage for three to six-year-olds with properly trained educators.

Yet there’s no more productive investment the Scottish Government can possibly make. Over the last 30 years, Estonia has demonstrated the economic and social step change that’s possible when stifling old educational mindsets are finally abandoned. After regaining independence in 1991, Estonia dumped the old Soviet teaching system and pivoted immediately towards their Baltic neighbours in Finland, with whom they now regularly share top spot in the international PISA charts for education attainment.

The Finns have high quality, low-cost kindergarten from 1-7, small schools and class sizes, and crucially no external exams or change of school till the age of 14 (avoiding the upsetting move that occurs here at 11) because they’ve found academically weaker pupils do better in familiar spaces.

For the last 30 years this has been the Estonian system too, boosted by their own massive investment in digital classroom tools which has helped transform a former Soviet backwater into Europe’s digital Tiger economy.

Tell me this doesn’t intuitively make better sense than plodding along with an educational system ‘designed’ to facilitate the industrial revolution of the mid 1800s? Of course, Finland also has a proper welfare state with next-to-no generational poverty or income polarity which blight the chance of supportive home learning environments for many poor children in Scotland.

But change cannot wait for independence. Essentially, our children require a collective act of faith in their own innate ability to learn without judgement, uniforms, desks, formality and tests when they’re just four and five. Are SNP delegates ready to deliver?

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