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Upstart – Morag Pendry

On a cold wet Monday evening in November I fully expected to be one of a handful of people at the first meeting to launch the UPSTART campaign in the Lothians. Much to my surprise and the delight of Sue Palmer, (instigator of this campaign and well know author of many books, including Toxic Childhood) – over 60 people had turned up!

Why were we all there and who were all these people who were motivated enough to give up the warmth and comfort of their homes on such a night?

It turns out that we are all concerned about our children starting formal education before they are ready. The gathering of peoples ranged from concerned parents and grandparents to headteachers, nursery staff, health service workers to one of Scotland’s most eminent professors of psychology.

Willie French eloquently outlined why he was supporting this campaign and with his 22 years of experience as a primary headteacher in Edinburgh, it was hard not to be convinced of the importance of play for our young children.

This was then followed by a short talk from Sue Palmer, who enthusiastically gave a heartfelt summary of evidence and research from around the world which overwhelming and clearly demonstrated the advantages of a later start to formal education for our under 7’s…. Nordic  children don’t start formal education till they are 7… need I say more!

What was interesting to hear was that our Curriculum for Excellence is a model envied throughout the world for its emphasis on the importance of play in early stages, but the worry is that we are not actually following our own advice here in Scotland!  Why is that, why, despite having documents, recommendations and research to show that starting “schoolification” too early is actually a disadvantage, do we do it?

Why then, do we need this campaign to apply and implement the directives we already have from Curriculum for Excellence?

Well, it would appear that despite (or because of) every ones’ best intentions, there is a drive to get children reading writing and counting as soon as they can.   Understandably, parents want to know if their offspring can read, count , know their colours and a multitude of other landmark indicators, for their child’s successful development. Pressure to perform is then an inevitable outcome of our target and evidence obsessed society.  This leads to infants, who are still not ready for formal education, sitting down in groups, being asked to stop talking, sit still, listen and perform cognitive activities beyond their developmental stage.

If they are not ready, they will not be able to learn and distraction followed by disaffection is an inevitable outcome. Add to this the lack of social learning which comes from their limited free play and perhaps we have the beginnings of an understanding as to why they are under performing against international league tables at a later stage in their lives?

Too much formal education too soon, it would seem, lead to underperformance later on. The unfortunate side effects of this are all too obvious in the educational attainment gap we now trying to close as well as the increasing levels of mental health problems and suicide rates as evidenced by recent statistics for our teenagers.

The recent “slow food” movement has grown due to the understanding that although forced, fast grown and prepared food might stave of the hunger in the short term, has very little long term, nutritional benefit.  “Fast food”, has now, rightly, come in for significant criticism. Perhaps “fast learning,” should now also attract the same criticism for its lack of long -term health, happiness and learning benefits?

It would seem to me that discussion around the Kindergarten campaign is urgent as well as necessary to ensure that we have a happy, healthy and well-educated next generation. It would also seem that less advantaged children suffer more from this formal start and by delaying formal education this may also help in the seemingly intractable issue of closing the educational gap.

Have a look at some of the evidence here:  http://www.upstart.scot

I’m now convinced that we need to give our young children much more time to play in the early years. After all, they will be living so much longer, (this generation to 120!) why the rush to cram all this formal learning into the first few years of their lives?

Morag Pendry is the Development Manager for the Co-operative Education Trust Scotland (CETS) and a member of the Commission on School Reform