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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 09 March 2021

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Climate Change Plan, Budget (Scotland) (No 5) Bill: Stage 3, Budget (Scotland) (No 5) Bill, Committee Announcement, Business Motion, Decision Time, Early Education


Contents


Early Education

I ask members to be quiet—you have said your farewells.

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-24252, in the name of Beatrice Wishart, on Upstart Scotland.

The debate will be concluded without any questions being put. I ask those members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the calls from Upstart Scotland for the reform of early primary school education and the introduction of a statutory kindergarten stage up to age seven; recognises the work of campaigners across the country to further the campaign, which was launched in 2016; notes the evidence presented by Upstart Scotland, which suggested that children under seven, in Shetland and across Scotland, could benefit from an approach that supports their wider physical, emotional, social and cognitive development, and that this can lead to the best long-term outcomes and attainment, and understands that Upstart Scotland has the support of experts for this, including the Commissioner for Children and Young People, academics, doctors, charity directors and frontline education professionals.

19:18  

I thank those Opposition members who gave their support to the motion, thereby allowing it to be debated.

This is the first time that there has been a debate in the Scottish Parliament on raising the school starting age. It would be a big change, and I understand why some people are nervous about it. Scotland’s school starting age has been with us since 1870; it is deeply ingrained in our culture, habits and expectations. Victorian politicians chose the age of five so that mothers could provide labour and their children could join them sooner. I do not believe in change for the sake of change, but the fact that something has lasted a long time does not mean that it should carry on without question.

Other countries do not start formal schooling so young. Scotland is an outlier in Europe, with only Cyprus and Malta keeping the United Kingdom company. Starting later would match what we now know about how children develop, how the early years are best grounded in play, developing skills and using the outdoors to develop curiosity and confidence, and how important that is to physical and mental health and wellbeing.

It is not about putting off learning until children reach primary 3, because attending school would still be mandatory; it is about transforming how children learn in what are currently P1 and P2. It is about recognising the long-term educational benefits of starting more formal schooling a little later, because the evidence shows that starting later does not mean finishing behind. Instead, children are better prepared to shine in areas such as literacy and numeracy.

By learning together through play, children develop the critical skills that they need for more complex tasks, with better long-term outcomes. If we start a child on those tasks before their brains are developed enough, they fall behind others in their class who were ready. They lose confidence, which can have lasting impact. The best way to close the attainment gap is not to open it in the first place. I pay tribute to Upstart Scotland, which has been working diligently to build a platform for that evidence. That has been invaluable to me as I have worked through my initial reservations, and I now firmly believe that it is a sensible way forward.

The most recent programme for international student assessment results were worrying, as they told us that, despite the best efforts of teachers, pupils and parents, something was wrong in Scottish education before the pandemic. However, there is more to be found in those results than just that cause for concern. PISA comparisons consistently show that countries with later school starting ages have performed better. Places such as Finland, which have enviable outcomes in attainment, wellbeing and overall satisfaction with the education system, have always been among the highest-scoring nations. By the age of nine, pupils in Finland have higher reading levels than pupils in the UK, having started at the age of seven, not four or five. Instead, in Scotland, we push four and five-year-olds through national assessments—a testing regime that the Scottish National Party Government continued against the will of Parliament.

Recovery from the pandemic through education will not happen overnight, and changes such as the one that I propose will not magic away other problems. There is plenty else that we must address, too. However, children start school only once, so it is important that we get it right for all their life chances.

19:22  

I am pleased to take part in this important debate, and I thank Beatrice Wishart for bringing it to the chamber.

Nothing is more important to our children than the early, formative years of their lives. Upstart Scotland is a respected and informed organisation with the best interests of children at its heart and as its core aim. I have every regard for the organisation, which believes in the importance of play and the fundamental need for children to experience all elements of growing and learning in the natural world. Having time and space to play is essential for physical and mental health and the development of communication, as well as for social and problem-solving skills. Sadly, during the pandemic, children have been missing play with their friends at school or at home, and many children without outside space have been restricted to playing indoors. That is just one of the terrible consequences of the pandemic, and it is affecting our younger people.

Play is natural: wanting to play is a human instinct, as well as an instinct in animals. How much time do we spend playing with our pets, who, from birth, instinctively want to play? The principle applies to animals in the wild as well as to domestic pets. I entirely agree with the ethos of Upstart Scotland, and I am heartened to see that, over the past five years, early years providers in schools have come to see promoting play as an essential part of their role as practitioners.

Shortly after I was elected, I met an inspirational woman—my constituent Pauline Scott, who runs Lullaby Lane nurseries in Bearsden and Milngavie—and her team of early years providers. She taught me much about the importance of attachment and play and their benefits to children and their families. I was impressed by Pauline’s approach as a practitioner, and I remain impressed by her as an employer. She leads a team of caring professionals who do a job that is, frankly, invaluable to society.

When my son was at nursery, 25 years ago, things were very different. The care was excellent and I had no complaints at the time, but, looking back, there was little evidence of outdoor or unstructured play, which is essential for little ones’ development.

Beatrice Wishart’s motion asks us to support

“the reform of early primary school education and the introduction of a statutory kindergarten stage up to age seven”.

I have much sympathy for that idea and agree that it should be part of a wider discussion. The evidence that has been cited by Upstart Scotland and our European neighbours is, as Beatrice Wishart outlined, very persuasive. Upstart Scotland has suggested that emerging from the pandemic would be a good time to restructure our primary education system. Our focus just now is on getting all children back to school, but that is not to say that, when that is successfully and safely done, the conversation should not begin. It would require considerable societal change, with many wider consequences to be considered.

It is clear, in my view, that starting formal schooling later does not harm a child academically. In that regard, I welcome the Government’s changes to the deferral scheme, which gives parents the choice to delay school until they believe that their child is ready. I expect that the minister will mention that in her closing speech.

I commend Upstart Scotland’s work and its research into a vital issue, and I again thank Beatrice Wishart for bringing the matter to the chamber.

19:26  

I am very pleased to keep Beatrice Wishart company in the chamber, for the benefit of those at home. What a Parliament it would be if it was just me and the Liberal Democrats, eh? No comment is required, Presiding Officer, but I thank you.

As is customary, I thank the member for bringing a really important subject to members’ business in what little parliamentary time we have left. That she chose this topic over any other is both wise and welcome. It is also good to see Ms Wishart in person in the Parliament, after a difficult year.

I, too, pay tribute to Upstart Scotland, and to Sue Palmer specifically, for all its excellent work and its persistent efforts in highlighting the importance of the early years in—as has been mentioned—levelling the playing field in education. I do not have much time to go into the detail of its proposals, but rest assured that I am halfway through reading the book “Play is the Way”, which I encourage other members to read. It can be dipped in and out of very easily, and some excellent arguments and concepts are raised within it.

The motion makes a few specific calls that I feel unable to support. In normal times, perhaps I would have supported them, but we are in the middle of that awkward manifesto period. I am sure that the member will understand and will forgive me for not putting my name to specific policies. However, I remain sympathetic to much of the motion’s content. I think that there is cross-party consensus that we all want to give Scotland’s children the best start in life, although disagreements may remain over how we deliver that.

As UNICEF has rightly put it:

“The first five years of a child’s life are fundamentally important. They are the foundation that shapes children’s future health, happiness, growth, development and learning achievement at school, in the family and community, and in life in general.”

Research also tells us how important those early years are

“for the brain’s organizational development and functioning throughout life. They have a direct impact on how children develop learning skills as well as social and emotional abilities.”

Therefore, when an organisation such as Upstart Scotland comes along and puts forward good ideas, I hope that the Government will consider those good ideas, wherever they come from.

There is, no doubt, a case to be made for much of the content of Upstart Scotland’s aims, and, to that degree, I welcome some of its goals. In a recent Conservative policy paper, we made calls for “Closing the Word Gap” among young children before they enter school. I very much welcome other aspects of its aims and ambitions—for example, its focus on the importance to learning of outdoor activities. I do not think that we can overstate the importance of outdoor learning. That particular industry has experienced many difficulties during the past year and has been campaigned for by colleagues such as Liz Smith, among many other members, who has highlighted the plight of outdoor learning centres right now.

Upstart Scotland also focuses on the concept of kindergartens—we could spend a whole day debating that issue—the importance of the three Rs, of cognitive learning and of play, and the vital role that the early years workforce plays. It is also right to highlight the value of children having time and space for play, because that is vital for their health and all-round development.

We know that children are spending, on average, half as much time in active, creative or outdoor play as their parents did, but that is not to say that digital does not work—it does, and it has its role. Gaming and digital activities are often blamed for causing someone’s inability to learn, but their role in learning is underestimated. We do not talk enough about the role of technology. The events of the past year remind us of the importance of digital learning, although nothing can replace face-to-face interaction with teachers and peers.

In the few short moments that I have left, what about the subject of starting school later? Such a policy might have benefits, and we should always keep our minds open to such ideas, but there are also thoughts to the contrary. A quote from Professor Thomas Cornelissen—I apologise to him if I have mispronounced his name—of the University of Essex best summarises the problem. He says that

“surprisingly little is known about what the optimal school starting age is, despite its obvious policy relevance.”

That sums up the debate: we do not know enough, and we need more research.

I am not here to judge or decide. Many countries take different approaches, and what works in one country might not always work in another. Nonetheless, we should never be afraid to challenge the status quo, which Upstart Scotland does admirably.

19:30  

I add my thanks to Beatrice Wishart for bringing to the chamber a members’ business debate on the Upstart Scotland campaign. The debate is timely, as we start to assess the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Scotland’s young people and, perhaps, have the chance to look ahead to doing things differently and better, as we recover from the pandemic. If there has ever been a time to look again fundamentally at how we can give children and young people the best start in life, it is probably now.

The Parliament has made significant progress in the session by passing legislation—some of which has been groundbreaking—to improve young people’s lives, which members from across the chamber have fought for. There was the long-delayed victory for the Give Them Time campaign, which stood with parents who wished to defer their child’s entry to primary school. The bill to incorporate into Scots law the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is also to be passed imminently.

The Parliament can be bold and can drive forward change when it wants to. With the introduction of 1,140 hours of early years education for three and four-year-olds, now is probably the time to properly consider Upstart’s campaign for a proper kindergarten stage to be introduced, and for formal schooling to begin at the age of seven.

As Beatrice Wishart pointed out, Scotland is in the minority internationally in respect of its formal schooling age; in most countries, children start formal education only at the age of six or seven. As members have said, an increasing body of academic research shows that a kindergarten stage might have benefits and could help to change cultural attitudes to early education and raise awareness of the importance of play—in particular, outdoor play—in learning.

As the motion says, the potential benefits of delaying the start to formal schooling include support for

“wider physical, emotional, social and cognitive development”.

A later start will require serious consideration if the evidence shows that it could lead to better long-term outcomes and help to close the poverty-related attainment gap, which Beatrice Wishart spoke about.

As other members have said, there is growing support for Upstart’s campaign across Scotland, including support from the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, many academics, doctors and many front-line education professionals. However, it is important that we take parents with us in any such reform.

It is worth noting that the debate has been reported—indeed, misreported—as being about moving the school starting age from five to seven. That is not exactly what the motion calls for; addressing the proposal by making a disruptive change in the law would not, as the motion suggests, be the best approach. Much better would be a shift to a more blended transition from the early years to more formal education, which would build on changes that are happening in the pedagogy of early primary school.

This is a debate that we should and must have. Upstart Scotland should play a big part in the development of an education recovery plan in the coming months, but so, too, must parents, teachers and wider society.

19:35  

The physical and emotional wellbeing of our children and young people is always of paramount importance. I wholly support how the Upstart campaign has positioned child wellbeing centrally within its ethos and activity.

I also strongly agree about the benefits of play-based pedagogy, child-centred learning and outdoor educational experiences. It has, as part of my role as Minister for Children and Young People, been a privilege to visit many school and pre-school settings. I have seen at first hand the impact of play-based approaches and of learning outdoors. I am a passionate believer that that work should continue.

However, my experiences of visiting schools and early learning settings have also demonstrated to me that the extremely positive educational outcomes are being delivered without the need for the introduction of a formal kindergarten stage. The inherent flexibility of curriculum for excellence, combined with the hard work and creativity of our education practitioners, already allows play-based approaches to be delivered up to the age of seven—and beyond.

We have a tremendous opportunity to build on that work and to ensure that child-centred and play-based pedagogies become the norm for all children, from birth to seven, across Scotland. It is important that that can be achieved without the need to formally change the school starting age—a move that, as others have acknowledged, would cause significant disruption, particularly as we continue to battle a pandemic.

I have listened to persuasive contributions from a number of colleagues this evening, so I will take time to respond to some of them.

Beatrice Wishart mentioned that the current school starting age is detrimental to academic attainment. Without understanding the consequences of other factors, we cannot conclude either that raising the school starting age would be risk free or that lower starting ages in Scotland drive current performance. The data from the PISA—programme for international student assessment—2015 assessment suggests that there is little connection between school starting age and performance at the end of compulsory education. There was virtually no difference in performance in maths, and in reading there was a slightly negative relationship. Overall, PISA’s data suggests that the effect of pupils’ starting age on educational performance is very weak compared with other interventions.

The primary assessments were also mentioned. I must make it absolutely clear that if it is not appropriate for a child to sit those assessments, they should not take part in a standardised assessment. That was made clear when we debated the issue previously, and should be clearer than ever this year.

Jamie Greene talked about outdoor learning, for which we share a passion across Parliament. Although early learning and childcare settings can find it easier to take children outdoors, perhaps because of the ratio of adults to children, there is evidence of really excellent outdoor learning in schools. The unique challenges of the current pandemic mean that outdoor learning will be even more important as we return to school. We continue to support that work. This year, we have funded development of free-to-access professional development courses that focus on outdoor learning.

Recent discussions with academics about the transition to primary 1, the feelings of children in the pandemic as they return to school and the indicative learning about play and learning have been really good. Play and learning are indivisible—they are one and the same thing for children. Children have been playing a lot in the last year: they have been exercising agency and choice, being creative, being playful and socialising. As a Government, we have put children right at the centre of our decision-making as we have navigated the pandemic. The evidence is that there have been some excellent gains from that. There have been efforts to take back the streets, and to focus on intergenerational learning and enhanced family time.

I was very pleased to hear Iain Gray acknowledge some of the groundbreaking work that we have achieved during this session of Parliament. I am delighted with the work on deferral, and that we have finally passed legislation on that promise. The incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child will happen next week, and the commitment to 1,140 hours of funded childcare will be delivered this year.

In conclusion, I thank Beatrice Wishart for bringing the debate to Parliament. I am thankful for the opportunity to take part in it and for the thoughtful contributions of colleagues from across the Parliament. I truly believe that, in Scotland, we have a chance to create the child-centred play-based approach that Upstart supports, without the need for major organisational change.

It is significant that in response to the publication of the Scottish Government’s “Realising the Ambition: Being Me” document for early years education, Upstart’s March 2020 newsletter stated:

“If this document can be translated into practice in all Scottish early years settings (including P1), Scotland’s ELC provision will be up there with the Nordic countries ... and Upstart will be redundant.”

Thank you. That concludes the debate.

Meeting closed at 19:40.