Last week I contributed to a BBC Radio Scotland discussion on a proposed change to school starting age in Scotland. Scottish National Party (SNP) members backed a motion at their recent annual conference to extend the current kindergarten stage to all three to six-year-olds and plan to campaign for government to sanction this in law. At present, the kindergarten stage is funded for all children of three and four years of age, and some two-year-olds, prior to starting formal schooling at four or five years, depending-upon their month of birth.
Much of the argument for extending kindergarten and delaying the start of formal schooling, rests upon the idea that nursery and kindergarten settings can use play-based learning approaches that particularly benefit social, emotional and language development, which in turn, provides an ideal basis for more formal learning, i.e. desk-top numeracy and literacy especially. It also ensures better self-regulation, increased attention and concentration and development of independence and self-help skills. Opponents to a later school start, argue that superior long-term academic attainment, better socialisation and increased independence in learning and metacognition skills, i.e. learning how to learn, all results from the present school starting arrangements.
My experience of nurseries and the early years of school, as a teacher, and as an educational psychologist, a parent and a grandmother, suggests that things aren’t quite as polarised as the preceding arguments suggest. I’ve been in nurseries that placed a high premium upon teaching children early number and literacy skills and required children to work at desks for large parts of the day. I’ve also been in foundation stage classes, known as nursery and reception classes in England and kindergarten and P1 in Scotland, where play-based, exploratory learning was prioritised. How did children fare in these different settings? Well, as usual, some did exceptionally well, most did reasonably well and some did not do well.
Susan, an articulate and thoughtful parent of a five-year-old, preceded me in the radio discussion, and she described how conflicted and stressed she felt about her son, whose month of birth meant he would be one of the youngest in this school year, beginning school. She talked about how he had, only relatively recently, acquired self-help skills such as using the toilet independently, washing, feeding and dressing himself, never mind learning about numbers and letters. Although, she did have the option to defer his school start by a year, she was not keen to do this, because it would mean that he would not be able to maintain friendships with his nursery friends, who would all be leaving for school.
The main points that I made in the five minutes or so that was allocated me, supported Susan’s views, in that I recognise the massive developmental differences that exist between children, regardless of their chronological age. I also know that parents, in the vast majority of cases, have the in-depth knowledge and experience with their own children, that allows them to make sensible and appropriate decisions about their child’s school readiness and also, very importantly, the kind of early learning experience and setting that will best suit them. However, I also recognise the importance of having a general school starting age framework, within which parents should be able to exercise some choice, which enables governments and local authorities to manage resources, curricula, pupil outcomes and learning contexts.
I recently read about a UNICEF report about research on the quality of childhood of children in different countries. As is usually the case, the countries studied, did not included ‘the developing world’, i.e. those countries where general income is low relative to wealthier nations. One of the indicators that the study used was quality of education. Of the top five nations rated as offering the highest quality of childhood experience, four had school starting ages of six and seven. Only one, the Netherlands, had a lower school starting age of four years. The UNICEF research identified other indicators such as health and safety, e.g., children’s freedom to play and travel independently outside the home, parental childcare leave environmental factors such as levels of pollution and areas of green space, and cultural support for children and families.
There is no question that bringing up children and supporting their development, although one of the most natural and commonplace human experiences, is a complex business, and many public bodies, corporations and professionals are invested in being able to tell parents how to do it and in advising upon the best possible strategies and arrangements to do this through the many means of communication that now exist. If parents feel some stress and uncertainty in making their parenting decisions, including those about their children’s education, it is not surprising.
Another contributor to the radio piece was a researcher in neurodevelopmental psychology. She argued that research highlighted the stress that young children experienced, from having to engage in formal learning at too young an age. She argued for more play-based, flexible and individualised learning arrangements. Here, it makes sense to acknowledge the importance of skilled, well trained, supported and valued early years teachers. It is only in the micro-detail of teaching young children on a daily basis, that such flexibility and individualisation can be considered and constantly adjusted for the best fit.
After my years as a teacher of young children, who then went on to first teach, and then practise as a practitioner psychologist, in many other phases and settings within education, I hold the view that a compulsory requirement of teacher education should be to include a substantial placement in early years settings. I always thought that the learning and developmental experiences of the very young, set the scene for all learning that followed, whether in formal learning situations or life in general. Perhaps, if this was adopted as policy and strategy, there would be more scope for collaborations between parents and early years educators that achieved the best fit for individual children within flexible school starting arrangements.