By Isobel Skyes
I left Scotland 10 years ago in a bashed up Ford Fiesta and all my belongings in a box. I returned 7 years later with considerably more baggage in the shape of 1.5 kids, a husband, a teaching degree and a lorry 60% full of plastic toys that bleeped. I was 40 weeks pregnant with an apparent future footballer and our daughter was just 3. Had we stayed in England, she would have been starting school the following summer at the tender age of 4. I was apprehensive. From what I had experienced in my teaching career so far it all felt a bit too soon, so I was delighted to discover that as a February born baby in Scotland, her and her January born peers would be entitled to defer their school start date by a year. Not only that but she would automatically be entitled to an extra year of nursery funding.
Despite being a primary school teacher, my decision to defer my child’s school start was still considered a bit controversial by the rellies/random people on the bus etc. By all accounts my daughter presented as ‘ready’ for school. She was thoughtful, bright, very curious and a great talker. She knew all her letter sounds and numbers, had no toileting issues, was fairly good at getting herself organised, basically all the things that the establishment suggest ‘readiness’ to start school. It was even argued by some well-meaning folk that I was “holding her back”. How could I not see that she was ‘“definitely ready” and that she would be “unchallenged” or even “bored” in nursery? I couldn’t have disagreed with them more. I believed that play was learning. I built it into my lessons as much as possible simply because it seemed to me the natural way for children, and indeed humans, to learn. Play was meaningful and memorable, the sort of learning that is deep and that sticks. So I did my reading. I needed facts and reasons beyond my own ‘gut instinct’ (although I would always advise you trust this too) to throw at the doubters. Why not school at 4? The answer to this lay in asking ‘WHY school at 4?’
The UK has one of the lowest school starting ages in the world, in fact only 12% of countries start formal schooling at 5 (66% start at 6, 22% start at 7). The history of this decision finds its roots in 19th century industrial Britain. Reforms brought in at the time expanded educational provision and introduced widespread state-funded schools. By the 1800s education was compulsory for children aged 5 to 10.The Elementary Education Act of 1880 permitted school boards to set a standard which children were required to reach before they could be employed. Children who were employed were required to have a certificate to show they had reached this standard and employers who were unable to show their child workers had done so were penalised. It thus made economic sense then to send them as early as possible. The earlier a child could start school the sooner the parents were available to work in local industry and the sooner their children would be ready to join them. Nowhere could I find any pedagogical reason for starting school at 4 or 5. Nothing that said ‘at 5 your child has reached a level of development that makes them ready to engage with and succeed in more formal learning’. Somehow, we as parents (and one could argue councils and governments as well) seem to have bought into the idea that the sooner we start children at school and the harder we push them, the sooner they’ll achieve great things. However, research suggests the opposite is true.
In UNICEF’s 2013 survey ‘Child Well-being in Rich Countries: A comparative overview’ the UK ranked poorly alongside its European neighbours. Through the use of indicators that captured how many children in each country had low income, low educational achievement, poor health or low levels of life satisfaction, the survey didn’t quite reinforce the impressive colonial mythos that a ‘British Education’ holds overseas. The western countries with the best records in education start formal schooling at seven, as is the case in Finland. That doesn’t mean their children stay home till 7. Many of these countries have a kindergarten stage based on well-established principles of child development. Research into the role of play in child development has consistently found that free, self-directed play is fundamental to children acquiring the ability to self-regulate, develop social competence and language skills. It is also important to note that those children whose countries do give precedence to play and start formal learning at a later age, show no signs of having been ‘held back’. Indeed in PISA’s 2016 Education ranking of western nations, the top achieving nations all start formal school at 6 or 7. Having taught the 6-7 age range myself many times over the last 10 years, I was trained to group my children based on academic ability to enable me to differentiate and better meet those children’s needs. Makes sense right? But when I take a closer and more uncomfortable look back I remember those 6 year olds knew quite well that being in the ‘circles group’ in maths meant they weren’t ‘the best’. They didn’t have to be called the ‘bottom’ group to know that is how they were viewed. Because they could see the work they got was easier and they knew the teaching assistant or teacher was usually always stationed at their table. Teaching and learning in Scotland (and my classroom!) has thankfully moved on quite a bit from then, however I still wince when I think back to what I was taught was ‘best practice’. I wonder how many of those circles missed out on achievements of which they were quite capable because at such a young age they were already deemed by people like me to be incapable?
In Scottish education there has definitely been a shift in understanding about the primacy of play. P1 should now be more ‘play-based’ however I would argue that there is still a misunderstanding here. Play IS learning. In some schools ‘Play-based learning’ is just a fancy way of saying ‘we’ve decided what’s important and we’ve tried to make it super fun’. The agency of what to learn and where to take that learning still lies predominantly with the teacher. Despite years of investment to narrow the attainment gap in education between rich and poor, where you are born and how much money your parents have still overwhelmingly dictates your life chances. Mental health problems, childhood obesity and the huge decline in recent years of opportunities for children’s free outdoor play are having a growing impact on children’s social and academic achievements. Despite Scottish policy supporting a developmental approach, it’s clear the structure of our education system can’t support it when we are still sending children into formal learning situations at 5.
Deferral then, was a no brainer, and I was lucky not to have to argue my point too forcefully with the school and nursery. However in speaking to other parents who sought the same thing, it became clear that even some nurseries and schools were giving out advice that didn’t quite tally up with what parents were legally entitled to do. Many were led to believe it was an opportunity that would be granted or not. It came as a surprise to me that ALL children who have not turned 5 by the start of their p1 year are legally entitled to defer. Funding for nursery however, remains the decision of the council in question and huge disparities exist between how individual councils approach discretionary deferrals across Scotland. Even if you are lucky enough to be able to self-fund an extra year of nursery, many councils will not allow you to do that in a school nursery meaning parents are faced with deciding to uproot their child for a year and place them in a private nursery setting or sending them to school. The simple truth is that many parents simply can’t afford not to send their children to school. This postcode lottery in part led to the establishment of grassroots movement Give them Time in the summer of 2018, with parents across Scotland sharing their own experiences of applying for a further year of nursery funding for their child. Thanks to the work of the campaign the Scottish government recently debated and voted to introduce legislation to support the automatic deferral of all children not yet 5, however until this becomes law (if it ever does) and funding is provided to councils, whether you are supported to do what you feel is right for your child or not is still dependent on where you live or whether you can self-fund.
As for me, as both a mum of a deferred child and a primary school teacher, I would say we’ve not regretted the decision once. And if you’re lucky enough to be able to give your child just a wee bit more time then you should definitely grab it with both hands. The best advice I was given was ‘Yes they might be ready. But they won’t be ‘less ready’ a year later will they?’