Why play makes grown-ups a bit nervous


(Pictures Jane Hewitt Photography ©)

Post by Dr. Suzanne Zeedyk




It’s striking to see how enthusiastically people are already being drawn to the Upstart Movement. The campaign is clearly tapping into a frustration that is lying just below the surface for many parents and staff. When they hear the case being made by Upstart, it seems straightforward to them: “Yes, our youngest children need more play.”

So what is the problem? Why does the case not seem obvious to the rest of ‘the everyone’ in Scotland? Why does the call for more play sometimes turn into a kind of battle?

Here’s my answer: We are still a Presbyterian culture, here in Scotland. Deep in our cultural psyche, we remain a bit suspicious of play. We don’t really trust it; we don’t esteem it; we don’t rate it. In fact, it makes us a bit nervous. Play doesn’t seem serious enough. It doesn’t seem earnest enough. Play is the thing you do when all the important stuff is done, when the work is finished, when you can take a bit of time off. Play is the frivolous stuff at the end of the day.

JMH_3251Frivolity is not the sort of thing that a serious culture thinks our children should be doing with their time. All that larking about, laughing, getting carried away, doing unstructured stuff. Children should be focused on learning. As a culture, we like the activity of learning more than we like the activity of play. Play is frivolous. Learning is serious.

I know that phrases like ‘learning through play’ have become popular in educational circles. I celebrate that shift. But such phrases ultimately serve to justify play. They explain to doubters why play is valuable. They legitimate play as worthwhile, because it leads to something else: learning. Such phrases reassure skeptical adults that a child at play is engaged in a respectable activity. “Relax, that youngster is actually learning – it only looks frivolous.” Our 21st century Scottish mindset somehow finds it difficult to conceive of learning and play as the same thing.

Would we be comfortable, as a culture, if our government started spending money on educational establishments where the motto was ‘play for play’s sake’? My guess is that we wouldn’t have cultural faith that that was a good enough investment of our taxes.

Take for instance the Play Talk Read bus. I love watching the giggling that goes on between parents and children inside our purple busses, funded by the Scottish Government. But it isn’t the Play Talk Laughter bus, is it? Voters are willing to have the government fund the programme because the word Read appears in the title. The existence of those busses depends on the inclusion of that single word: ‘Read’.  

JMH_3523So when I reflect on what the Upstart Movement is doing, I now think of it as tackling our Presbyterian fear of frivolity. Upstart is trying to get us to undertake a cultural mindshift. It’s trying to get us to have faith that play matters for its own sake. That’s a scary step for a Presbyterian culture to take.

It may be helpful, then, to remind ourselves how far back the fear of frivolity goes. It can probably be tracked back at least to the 16th century and John Knox’s Protestant Reformation. But for now, let me go back ‘only’ to 1844, to one of the country’s most charismatic speakers, Reverend Robert McCheyne. When McCheyne died at the tender age of 30, his good friend Andrew Bonar published a glowing biography about him. Here is what a reviewer of the time had to say about that biography and about McCheyne himself:

“It is in burning and shining lights like Rev McCheyne…that we descry the dawning of Scotland’s better day….[He shows us] that good Christians enjoy such habitual peace as to have no need for levity. They are filled with such deep gladness that it does not readily effervesce into riotous glee….Their frisky imagination is not forever bolting aside or running away.”

That’s precisely the problem with children! When you let them play, their frisky imaginations are forever bolting aside and running away with them! Play puts children at constant risk of giving themselves over to levity and descending into riotous glee!

I know that, since 1844, our culture has largely given up our Christian identity. But I don’t think we have given up our fear of frivolity.

Just in case you think that I am over-exaggerating my case, swept away by the delightfully archaic linguistic expression of the 19th century, it may be useful to know that Bonar’s biography proved hugely popular. Within 25 years, it had gone through 116 English editions. Some commentators proclaimed that “few books have been better loved”. By 1910, half a million copies were in circulation.  

Now…take a guess as to when the most recent edition of McCheyne’s biography was printed. The surprising answer is: in 2015. You can purchase a shiny new paperback copy from Amazon, if you wish. Reviewers there describe the biography as “awesome”, “challenging me to make changes in my own life”, and “the story of a hero for our time”.

The Upstart Movement is about more than our children. It is about what grown-ups in 21st century Scotland descry as valuable for this lifetime. Upstart is about our own humanity as much as it is about our children’s education.



(Pictures Jane Hewitt Photography ©)


Dear John Swinney,

I’m sure you’re only too aware that there’s no magic bullet for closing the attainment gap. It’s ingrained in the social and economic circumstances in which Scottish children are born, raised and educated. It’s not only a symptom of inequality but a cause of continuing inequality. It’s wrong and shameful and it must be addressed … but significant change will require concerted, coherent action by all sectors of Scottish society over many years, possibly decades.

So I’m writing on behalf of one group of people – Upstart Scotland – who desperately want to help make that change – people who have looked carefully at the evidence about child development and concluded that, for historical and cultural reasons, Scotland is actually perpetuating disadvantage by the structure of our education system.

Maisie-6When children start school at the age of four or five, those from disadvantaged backgrounds are on average thirteen months behind their luckier peers in terms of language and problem-solving skills. Yet we expect all children to achieve the same outcomes in literacy and numeracy. Not surprisingly, the disadvantaged kids fall behind, many lose heart, and despite the best efforts of their teachers, fail to thrive in our education system … and so the cycle of disadvantage continues.

Scotland is quite rightly attempting to reduce that thirteen month deficit by investing millions in improving the life chances of disadvantaged children from the moment they’re born, and Upstart Scotland desperately hopes this investment will continue. But we also know that any progress made in children’s first three years will soon be lost unless it is followed through in the next three, when they enter the educational system.

The quality of early years education is therefore of critical importance. It must be coherent and well-resourced. It must take account of every aspect of children’s physical, social, emotional and cognitive development, and of nurturing personal qualities that will help them flourish at school, rather than focusing too early on developmentally-inappropriate academic targets. A year or so in under-resourced childcare, followed by transfer at four or five to a formal school environment where the emphasis is on literacy and numeracy outcomes, is not the answer.

It’s no coincidence that the three western countries that currently score highest in the OECD educational charts don’t send children to school till they are seven. Before then, children are expected to learn in kindergartens, through the medium of play, at their own rate, and with the support of adults specially trained in the science of child development.

JMH_3227This kindergarten stage allows a few years for all children to enjoy learning in an active, age-appropriate way without the pressure of adult-imposed targets. And, crucially, for those children who arrive at a developmental disadvantage, it gives time to catch up in terms of language, problem-solving and self-regulation skills – qualities upon which success in formal schooling depends. Several years of play-based education, supported by caring well-informed adults, is the best way of creating a truly level playing field for all children’s educational achievement.

Upstart Scotland believes that our country’s extremely early school starting age, combined with an increasingly early focus on the three Rs, therefore compounds educational disadvantage and is far more likely to widen the attainment gap than to close it. We are therefore campaigning for the introduction of a kindergarten stage in Scotland for children between the ages of three and seven. It should have a recognisably different ethos from formal schooling, and be based on rapidly-growing scientific evidence about the importance of play in child development.

Research now shows that play – especially outdoor, active, social, self-directed play – enhances self-regulation, emotional resilience and cognitive development. Yet, over recent decades this sort of play has practically disappeared from many children’s out-of-school lives. The ‘real play’ through which evolution designed young children to learn has been replaced by an indoor lifestyle, largely centred on sedentary, solitary, screen-based activity. These recent cultural changes make it even more important that our education system provides time, space and support for play-based learning in the early years.

Rosa-1Upstart Scotland has been formed in response to all the concerns described above. It is a very new campaign – launched earlier the month – but already has the support of many hundreds of professionals from childcare and education, health, psychology, social justice, the play sector and children’s rights, as well as parents and organisations such as the Scottish Parent Teacher Council. All these Upstart supporters have concluded that radical change to early years education is now essential – not only to close the attainment gap, but also to tackle the alarming rise in mental health problems among children and young people ( a development which is almost certainly connected with the same social, cultural and educational issues).

I have therefore written directly to you, the Minister for Childcare and Early Years, the Minister for Public Health and Sport and the Minister for Mental Health asking you to meet with representatives of Upstart in order to hear our case before finalising your plans to close the attainment gap.

Please listen to Upstart’s arguments, Mr Swinney. We’re not suggesting that the introduction of a play-based kindergarten stage is a magic bullet. But we do have evidence that it could give all Scottish children – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds – a vastly improved chance of becoming successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors.

Yours sincerely,

Sue Palmer,

Chair, Upstart Scotland

Let’s all become upstarts!


by Gillian Hunt (Pictures Jane Hewitt Photography ©)

Though I am not new to education, having been an educator of children, and teachers, for the last 28 years, I am a new upstart! I believe that Scotland should want its children to be allowed to be children, to have a happy, fun-filled childhood, to be exposed to many and varied positive learning experiences, to form warm and meaningful relationships with other children, their teachers and other adults, to be well-supported by the educationalists around them, to be supported to reach their potential and to go on from education to have successful lives, supporting themselves and making a contribution to society.   

Is our education system in Scotland supporting this to happen?

The historical reasons we had in this country for an early school starting no longer exist. Statistics show us that the countries with a later starting age are giving their children a more successful schooling experience. For a number of years we have been concerned about early years education and the reduction of play in our educational settings. In addition we have a a significant gap between children of advantage and disadvantage. We are in danger of doing what we have always done and expecting different results. The definition of insanity, according to Einstein!

ned-2aIt’s time to do something different, to be more creative and to really learn from what’s working, and from what’s not. In Scotland we need to create a mixed economy of educational provision within the mainstream. A kindergarten stage, with indoor and outdoor play-based learning will give a firm, rich and meaningful foundation, ensuring children are fully ready of the next more formal stage of their learning. A middle school stage of P5 to S2 would address some of the transition difficulties young people face, including the dip that often happens in S1 and would help to support the natural developments and transitions young people are going through at that age. S3 to S6 is where we really need to consider a mixed economy because it’s where we lose many of our young people, leading to the unacceptable position of young people not moving on to education or work. An upstart colleague said that successful transition is no transition, wouldn’t that be a marvellous thing to be able to say about Scottish education? That we had appropriate, natural stages for children to develop through.

The changes required in Scottish education, noted above begin with the creation of a kindergarten stage.  Let’s all become upstarts!

Fife Parliamentary Candidates come under fire for failing Early Years at Cupar hustings


The Fife Upstart hustings “Was one of the most enlightening hustings I have ever been to.” said Willie Rennie, Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Scotland at Elmwood College, Cupar Wednesday night.

The meeting, attended by more than a hundred people, heard teachers, parents and mental health workers who overwhelmed the Scottish Parliamentary candidates with their passion, despair and frustration for Scottish children’s early years experience.

Upstart Scotland Campaign Leader Sue Palmer, author of ‘Toxic Childhood: How the Modern World is damaging our Children and what we can do about it’, said: “Scottish teenagers are the most stressed in Western World.” (The Herald March 15th.) She said: “We need a change of ethos in our primary schools.”

The growing movement, which has nine local networks of enthusiastic supporters right across Scotland even before its national launch in May, argues that to help Scotland’s children gain their full potential and avoid teenage mental health problems they need more time for free play in their early years.

At last night’s hustings, which was prompted by an augural meeting of Upstart Fife in Collesse village Hall in February Scottish Liberal Democrat Leader Willie Rennie, was joined on a panel by SNP Candidate Alycia Hayes, Scottish Conservative Candidate Martin Laidlaw, Andy Collins of the Scottish Green Party’s and Scottish Labour Candidate Rosalind Garton. The panel, which was chaired by award winning journalist and broadcaster, Lesley Riddoch, heard how children’s creativity and imagination was coming second to a need for ‘box  ticking‘ and constant assessment. One newly qualified primary school teacher described how alongside The Curriculum Excellence, a policy which encourages more free play and access to the outdoors, there is Assessment for Excellence which sees children ‘tested’ in Primary One. She said that in her job she was constantly making her own assessment of the children so did not see why a test was needed too. “Why are our assessments not trusted?” she said. “I feel so frustrated”


SNP candidate Alycia Hayes came under fire for the Government’s policies on testing and assessment. She agreed that change was needed: “We have a job of work to do. We have to change direction if that is what our teachers are saying.”

“I have not seen a test that could effectively test creativity or imagination,” said Scottish Labour Candidate Rosalind Garton. While Willie Rennie said that he thought the SNP would regret testing in Primary Schools.

Scottish Conservative Candidate Martin Laidlaw said that he thought the system needed re-structuring but did not advocate changing the school starting age.

Andy Collins, Scottish Green Party candidate, said testing of any sort is detrimental until at least eleven.

Child Psychologist Sarah Hume said: “Schools do not value childhood in the way that we experience it as a parent.” But she added: “Schools are under a lot of pressure.”



The Fife branch of Upstart Scotland is part of the campaign to change the school starting age in Scotland to seven. It is demanding a change in early years education through the introduction of a state-funded kindergarten stage for Scottish children aged three to seven with an emphasis on the outdoors.

Children in countries such as Finland, which has the best education results in Europe, don’t start formal schooling until seven. They have a state-funded kindergarten stage from three with an emphasis on the outdoors and as a result their young people do better in school.

To find out more see the group’s website: http://www.upstart.scot/ or their Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/upstartscotland/ or email info@upstart.scot.

For further information and interviews contact Andrea Habeshaw 01337 860983 or 07882797240

Playing for health’s sake

Jane Hewitt Photography ©

By Julia Whitaker, Health Play Specialist (Picture Jane Hewitt Photography ©)


Scotland is in the throes of a health crisis. A sugar-laden diet and sedentary lifestyle, dominated by hours spent in front of a screen, are associated with record rates of dental decay, obesity, and the associated long-term health conditions of type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease. Performance pressure in schools and in the workplace, and the challenges posed by social media, have produced a generation of children and young people reporting unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety and depression. Alcohol and drug misuse blight the lives of thousands. That’s the bad news …

It will take a generation to re-write the nation’s health profile and we have a duty to start now, whilst there is still hope for our youngest citizens. Hope lies in the wealth of research evidence that PLAY in all its forms has preventive and restorative capacities for all aspects of health, from early childhood and throughout the lifespan. That’s the good news!

Ella Mae 1

Jane Hewitt Photography ©

Active, physical play needs to be allowed, encouraged and celebrated as the natural state of young children. We may take delight in their first roll-over, marvel at the speed with which they can crawl away from us, and celebrate their first steps – but then we send them to school where they are told: ‘Sit still!’, ‘Don’t fidget!’, ‘No running!’. The demands of the traditional primary school classroom convey a powerful message that movement is bad and that ‘keeping still’ is what pleases the grown-ups. The irony is that within a year or two of starting school, our children are signed-up for extra-curricular exercise clubs to work-off their energy, improve their fitness levels and reduce their waistlines!

Opportunities for challenging, energetic play in the early years and beyond, allow children to develop physical skills and habits that will last a lifetime – and which may eventually save their lives. You cannot play computer games when you are climbing a tree, or eat a chocolate bar whilst up to your elbows in sand or mud. Government-sponsored ‘Healthy School’ programmes are well-intended but have been shown to have a limited impact because their motivation is extrinsic to the child. In contrast, children who have learned to enjoy using their bodies, and have discovered their physical capacities through play, do not need externally applied incentives to get moving; they grow-up as naturally willing, confident movers and shakers – in every sense.

Engagement with creative play – painting and crafts, dancing, clowning, imaginary and dramatic play – has been shown to have both a protective and recuperative impact on mental well-being and there is a well-established link between the decline in childhood play and the rise in childhood mental health problems. Giving children the space to be freely creative in their play generates and strengthens the neurological pathways that are responsible for creativity, inventiveness and adaptability throughout the lifespan. Play has been described as a ‘protective sheath’ against anxiety and depression and creative play produces healthy, creative individuals fit to face the challenges of modern life.

Jane Hewitt Photography ©

Jane Hewitt Photography ©

Playing together with other children teaches the rudiments of relationship building and reconstruction. Children learn through observation, imitation and experimentation – both of adult role models and of their peers. Learning how to be oneself in relation to others lies at the root of resilience. Playing as part of a group (at any age) fosters the feelings of identity and belonging which are crucial to personal well-being and to our capacity to make a positive contribution to our community and to the wider society. We don’t need to ‘teach’ our children social skills or ‘citizenship’ if they have had the chance to figure-out the intricacies of social relationships in their play.

Perhaps most importantly, PLAY makes us feel good! Play and joy go hand-in hand. We want our children to feel good about themselves, about their lives and about learning, because then they will be motivated to love and nurture themselves and their world. When we are given the time and space to get to know the world we inhabit, by playing in the outdoors and discovering all it has to offer, we will want to look after the planet. When we feel good about ourselves, we want to look after our bodies: to eat well and to own and celebrate our unique shapes and sizes. When we feel good about ourselves, we want to share that feeling with those around us by treating others with respect and compassion. A healthy child is essential to the creation of a healthy society.

A play-based early education, with the child at its centre, does not represent a shirking of professional responsibility nor is it an excuse for non-intervention. For children to be free to play, and to learn though their playing, they need the guidance and support of highly-trained and richly-skilled adults who know about child development processes and the nature of learning; adults who can contain and facilitate with equal ease and who know when to stand back and when to intervene. The introduction of a kindergarten stage to our primary schools is not about opting-out of early education but rather about demanding an enrichment of the learning experience with potentially wide-reaching benefits.

It is also vitally important for children’s health and well-being. The government has set worthy and ambitious health targets but the solution is so simple: For health’s sake, LET THE CHILDREN PLAY!


(Note: The author of this blog is, as stated above, Julia Whitaker – not ‘Julia Wilkinson’, as incorrectly named in the Newsletter.  Many apologies for the error.).


Early Arts. Nurturing Children’s Creativity (n.d.)  

Gray, P. (2010) The Decline of Play and Rise in Children’s Mental Disorders. There’s a reason kids are more anxious and depressed than ever. 

Panksepp, J. (2008) Play, ADHD, and the Construction of the Social Brain. Should the first class each day be recess? 

Tims, C. (Ed) (2010) Born Creative. London: Demos. 

Tonkin, A. (2014) The provision of play in health service delivery. Fulfilling children’s rights under Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Tonkin, A. (Ed.) (2014) Play in Healthcare. Using Play to Promote Child Development and Wellbeing. London: Routledge.

Learning Through Play


by Alison Hawkins, headteacher of Wester Coates Nursery

Here are a few thoughts to illustrate how much learning can be accomplished in a morning of play… if ever I needed confirmation of the value of learning outdoors and the wellbeing it fosters, this morning gave it to me!

Cold and frosty, but not wet – unlike our two previous excursions to ‘Treespot’, a very favourite area not far from our nursery and so named by the children because they feel they are out in a forest. The weather might well have put some people off, but not our well clad and enthusiastic explorers! They journeyed chatting away, collecting sticks and generally behaving like ‘old hands’.

Throughout the session I observed activities and experiences from each of the curricular areas

Health and Wellbeing was clearly evident in all its aspects – from our risk assessments to the physical exertion, to the benefits of the fresh air, to the supportive interactions and conversations amongst the children and adults. We met and spoke with people who have seen us out and about and we felt we had the ‘blessing’ of our local community.

Science came in several forms. There was the acknowledgement that the bulbs we have been watching push their green shots upwards survived not only ‘Henry’s storm’, as the children call it, but the severe frost. There was the physics of balance and weight as we roped logs together and pushed and pulled them to make a seating area. And on the nature side, the children have acquired an excellent knowledge of trees and birds, waterfalls and mud!

Mathematics and Numeracy: 3D shapes became meaningful as the children erected shelters and fixed them down with tent pegs, as did the understanding of long/short and heavy/light. Counting was evident in many of the games they played, as was quantity.

Literacy: Had I had a dictaphone I would have recorded some of the bones of creative writing which arose through role play and making scenarios for Stickman. Conversations appeared to be more meaningful than those which take place indoors and there was spontaneous laughter, turn-taking and recall demonstrated.

  • Cosy snack time in the orange ten

Expressive Arts manifested itself as the children used clay to make faces on tree trunks, adding features in detail using sticks and found straw, all the time giving running commentaries expressed in very descriptive terms. Several sculptures were created, in passing, with sticks, moss and mud.

Social studies was not overlooked as we spoke about how long the trees and river had been there, and there was a tangible feeling of the awe and wonder of the environment we were privileged to be in.. linked too to Religious and Moral Studies

Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man! Why does our country put such a misplaced emphasis on formality in the early years of education? Today we learned so much and also developed confidence, independence and resilience. Had this been high on a teacher/practitioner’s agenda it would have been easy to be ‘accountable’ and link most of the above experiences to the learning outcomes of A Curriculum for Excellence, or to any other international curriculum!

PS To help us spread the word about the importance of play, Alison also sent a newsletter to parents with information about Upstart.

Living in Interesting Times


Working as a guidance teacher in large city secondary school I am used to dealing with the ups and downs experienced by our pupils. At the moment our senior pupils are going through the annual torture of prelim exams and yet again my colleagues are remarking on the emotional fragility of many of our young people.

Exams have always been important and they have always been stressful, but it seems that the current generation of young people are less able to keep things in perspective. In an attempt to help them cope we have delivered PSD lessons on managing stress, touching on techniques such as mindfulness and relaxation. For some pupils we have had to help them to desensitise themselves to the fear of the exam hall by taking them into the room weeks ahead of the exam, letting them choose where they want to sit – usually by the door in case of nausea or tummy upset – and sitting with them whilst they get used to being there. Some can’t even make it that far and medical professionals are requesting that we provide accommodation for an increasing number of pupils to sit their exams without having to endure the stress of the ‘big hall.’ This is nothing compared to universities however, who are shipping in counsellors and setting up puppy petting rooms to help pupils manage their pre- exam nerves.  Even with all of our careful planning the least little hitch is catastrophised and pupils rush home to pour out the injustice to their parents who then berate us for our shortcomings!

person-731148_1280So why are young people so afraid of exams? In my opinion it is at least in part due to them being forced into the sausage factory model of education far too young, where during the course of their time in school some are literally assessed to death and more to depression. My daughter, a brand new primary teacher and my partner, an experienced primary head, both talk of children, who are barely out of nappies, being assessed: baseline assessed – have you met your targets? Then re-assessed – have you made adequate progress? The children at the earliest stages may not be too worried about the assessment, but their parents and teachers are and stress is contagious. Children quickly learn to associate school with tests and the fear of failure – letting parents down – which robs them of the joy of learning.

girl-918686_1920We know that early experiences have far reaching consequences. They help to form our internal working model that colours how we approach life.  Early and increasingly frequent exposure to stressful circumstances that flood the body with stress hormones can only be detrimental to the well being of children and young people. We already know that play, physical activity and being in the outdoors are promoters of well being and good mental health, so lets stop trying to fatten our piglets by shutting them indoors and keeping them confined before repeatedly weighing them! Let’s re-evaluate our education system and give them the best possible start by making their early years free range.


To boldly go: OECD, CfE … and Upstart

Picture: Flickr

Picture: Flickr

When it comes to education, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development believes in boldness. ‘Ambition’ doesn’t cut much ice for them any more – anyway, Scotland has already done ambition in the Curriculum for Excellence. ‘Vision’ is only useful up to a point (‘However visionary any curriculum is in principle, this makes little difference unless there is successful implementation in practice’). So now, at ‘a watershed moment for CfE’,  Scotland is advised – repeatedly – to be ‘Bold’.   

I counted forty uses of the term as I ploughed through Improving schools in Scotland: an OECD perspective published on December 15th… but sought in vain for new ideas on how Scotland could boldly go where no School Improvement Strategy has gone before.  

Sadly, the radical change proposed by Upstart didn’t even get a mention (perhaps because Upstart didn’t exist when the report was being written early last year). I had hoped, however, that the number-crunchers at OECD might have noticed that their own data (collected through PISA surveys of educational achievement) provides copious evidence that a kindergarten stage for children between 3 and 7 is educationally beneficial. The report does mention that Scotland’s performance in recent PISA studies is ‘well down’ on that of Finland, Estonia and Switzerland – but not that all these countries have a kindergarten stage till 7.  

But then high-flying educational researchers don’t tend to pay much attention to small children. In fact, until two months ago, there had been no studies at all on the significance of the age when children start school in different countries. Let’s hope that the National Economic Bureau’s report The Gift of Time? helps the penny drop.   

children-playing-1011430_1280More attention to Early Years would certainly help in one of the areas highlighted by the OECD: child and adolescent mental health problems. Among many references there is one to ‘a small, but increasing, number of children entering primary school with complex difficulties, including nurture and attachment issues’, who would clearly benefit from sensitive support in an extended kindergarten stage and another to the increasing incidence of ADHD, which the Gift of Time study shows is greater in early-start countries.

I was also interested in this paragraph about secondary school students:

[Recent] international surveys register a statistically significant upward trend since the beginning of the millennium in the proportion of students feeling pressured by schoolwork and feeling tense or nervous when doing mathematics. Unless PISA results [in 2016] show a clear change in levels of ‘maths anxiety’ this is an area that warrants close attention in the future, not only regarding students but also their teachers and at all levels.’

The most important level in terms of both emotional resilience and the deep understanding of mathematical concepts is early years. As children’s out-of-school life becomes increasingly pressurised, a longer period of kindergarten education would be highly beneficial in both these respects.  

read-515531_1280Long-term studies on the Upstart evidence base suggest that emotional problems related to too-early formal education aren’t usually noticed until children reach their teens. According to OECD, levels of stress reported by adolescents are now very high, particularly among girls: ‘The HBSC survey shows that more 15-year-old Scottish girls feel pressured by schoolwork than boys (80% compared with 60%). Indeed, the degree of stress reported by girls is higher than at any time in the past 20 years (Currie et al., 2015)’. Health and Well-being may be central to the CfE philosophy, but we clearly need to pay more practical attention to it, especially in the early stages when the nurturing of emotional resilience pays long-term dividends.    

But Early Years gets almost no attention in the OECD report. Most of its recommendations are tediously familiar, e.g.

  • Something Must Be Done about bureaucracy (‘it is the system that needs to be clarified, not giving users coping strategies or more detailed roadmaps through complex documentation’)
  • Giving more power to the people who drive school reform at grassroots level, referred to in the document as ‘the middle’ ( ‘a bold approach … moves beyond system management in recognition of a new dynamic and energy to be generated nearer to teaching and learning’)
  • More and better evaluation of CfE, including of course the system of standardised testing announced last summer.

There is, of course, plenty to celebrate about Curriculum for Excellence – and the enlightened Scottish attitude to education from which it arose – and the OECD is rightly lavish in its praise. But as the report says,

Many of the boldest and most visionary curriculum designs have failed in practice. Either the reforms have not spread beyond innovative schools and their enthusiastic and highly-skilled staff or the curricula have been so badly implemented that the practice has born only superficial fidelity to the philosophy.’

Sadly, this so far seems to be the case in terms of the developmental philosophy underpinning CfE’s approach to Early Years. Until it’s sorted out, there will be knock-on effects throughout the system.

So let’s make 2016 the year when Upstart’s case for change comes to the attention of the Scottish public – and help our politicians see that little children need more time and space to learn through play!

Sue Palmer, Chair of Upstart

Unready at four, ready at seven


Guest blog by a parent who found out about deferral the hard way

My son has always been a great talker and confident so – although he was born in December and only four when due to start school –  we assumed he’d be ready for it. He wasn’t, and we faced huge resistance in doing what was best for him. So much so that we wrote a blog to make other parents aware of their rights in relation to deferral.

When we filled in our little boy’s school form in December 2012, he showed no signs of wanting to read or write, but we assumed it would come. The nursery assured us he would be ready by August. However, as summer arrived and he was actively resisting any efforts to put pen to paper, we became increasingly concerned.

He attended a sports activity club over the summer holidays and we were shocked to hear his behaviour was causing concern. He was running into other children, was overly physical and was touching, pushing and attempting to lick or bite. He was shouting out, unable or unwilling to stand still, rolling around, crawling around. He found it difficult to follow three step instructions.

Our son is a sweet, gentle boy, and we had never had feedback like this from anyone. On reflection, the school nursery was free-play and this was the first time he had had to follow activity instructions for four hours, and do many things he didn’t want to do. We now see he lacked the emotional maturity, the resilience and the motor skills.

Although it was July, we decided to defer him and arranged a meeting with school, in August. We assumed that, with all the evidence we had provided showing he wasn’t ready for school, that even a last-minute deferral would not be a problem. After all, how can every child’s school readiness be accurately predicted nine months in advance? But the school told us that the nursery was full, and purely on that basis, we decided to try him at school. We were reluctant to put him into another nursery, away from his friends, difficult to get to.

kids-1005842_1920He didn’t take well to school. He had frequent tantrums in the mornings and had to be carried into the building. He was very reluctant to do homework, squirmed and couldn’t sit still. He was “reading” the books from memory because when the words were written on paper, he couldn’t read them. He got frustrated and angry. He began hitting his friends, something he’d never done before. He refused to show off his Learner’s Journal to an aunt in October, saying: “I’m hiding it. It’s rubbish.” This sweet little boy, bright and talkative, was already so aware that he lagged behind others, that he felt badly about his work. He still wasn’t even five.  I felt we were losing him, that his personality was changing.

However, he was apparently behaving well in school. They didn’t recognise the issues and so refused to accept what was happening at home. We now believe that he was doing his best to behave in school but all the pent-up frustration and anger was coming out at home. A common phenomenon, but ignored by them. As a teacher myself, I know this well.

We decided in the November to remove him from school and return him to the nursery. We were again told the nursery was full – except we had managed to find out that it wasn’t -. It never had been. The school and council tried to reassure us over the next two months that they would meet his needs in school and that he would receive additional outside help if required. They told us our only option was to keep him in school or to home educate, that returning him to nursery was not an option. However we were still convinced that a return to the nursery setting, where his best friends still were, that he continued to attend for wraparound, with the emphasis on play and lack of formal learning, was in his best interests. We had a complete difference of opinion from the school and council, and each side was determined to get its own way.

We finally withdrew him from school in late January, against the wishes of the school and council. We were threatened with legal action, and were denied a nursery place or even the chance to pay for wraparound care within the nursery during school hours. After a five week stand-off, he was granted the nursery place, but the council began to insist we had never been told the nursery was full.

sapling-1038840_1920Within a couple of days of leaving school and going to a childminder, our son’s behaviour at home dramatically improved. The tantrums were now a couple a fortnight, not several per week. The hitting stopped. He was clearly relieved not to have to read or write. He fitted back into nursery very well, and within a few weeks, it was as if he had never been a school child. His personality returned. I said to my husband, “It feels like we’ve got him back.” We had been expecting longer-term benefits by removing him from school. Neither of us had looked for such an instant improvement, especially since in January, he had shown some signs of beginning to settle better at school, and in the end, our decision to remove him had been a marginal one.

When he re-started Primary 1 (at a different school) aged 5 years 8 months, he still wasn’t keen to do reading and writing, but there was a marked improvement on the year before. There wasn’t the same reluctance to do homework. His progress was much better, and in line with what we would expect. His PIPS scores were far higher. He was more confident, and not so small compared to the other pupils. He was a normal P1. But I would have started him later, if I could, because he would have been perfectly happy not to be in school. The lack of desire to read, the happiness and absorption when playing, the desire to be out climbing, all told me he could easily have waited longer. He still fairly often said he didn’t like school.

He is now in P2, and in early October we noticed a further change in him. He now voluntarily tries to read when he doesn’t have to. I caught him trying to read one night at 11pm and was just so delighted he was reading that I couldn’t give him a row. He enjoys the formal side of learning in a way he didn’t before. His teacher noticed this too, and said his writing has recently got smaller, showing better fine motor control. It’s not a coincidence that he is approaching his seventh birthday.

parent-929940_1920aI am so grateful, to ourselves I guess, that we took the action we did. However, I wonder if starting school aged five rather than seven means he is less likely to enjoy reading when he is 11, or have lower comprehension skills, as studies suggest. He’s a sensitive wee boy and I wonder if his long-term resilience and emotional stability would have been better served by a later start. I would rather he had been begging to learn to read. But we did everything we could, and his current school is fantastic.

My overall experience is of a system weighted in favour of schools and, more importantly, in favour of councils. Many councils appear to have a policy against deferral. Each deferral means the council has to fund an additional year of nursery A place comes in at approx. £1,700 per child.

Parents who want to defer, particularly for children older than January-births, are fighting against the system. In our case, we weren’t even fighting with accurate information – we were repeatedly told things that weren’t true. Policy appears to trump individual considerations, to the point where parents are sidelined and ignored. If parents disagree and insist on taking their own decision, they are labelled as “difficult.”

My guess is that many parents of August-December children don’t even know that deferral is a serious option and a legal right. It is only the additional year of nursery which is discretionary. Even if they do, it’s wrong that councils can deny them a nursery place and thereby force their child into school. It’s wrong that if a child is denied a nursery place, then they are denied continuity, with their friends, even where nurseries have space. It’s wrong that some people can afford to defer, but others can’t. It’s wrong that school nursery staff are not free to tell parents their professional opinion that deferral would be in the best interests of their child. It’s wrong that headteachers and school staff are told by council staff what they can tell parents and what they can’t.

lego-932781_1920When your child’s nursery teacher says your child is ready for school, how do you know that is their honest opinion? Are they free to say what they think? How do you know it’s not what they’ve been told to say, whether to save money or because there’s a shortage of nursery spaces or because “policy”? How do you know school is in your child’s best interests? How do you know they are likely to thrive and not just “cope”? Will the system treat your child like an individual?



Curriculum for Excellence is widely recognised as an enlightened, forward-thinking, child-centred policy document, which fully recognises the significance of children’s health and well-being for educational success. In addressing the educational process from age 3 to 18, CfE also recognises that it is essential to take a developmental approach to pedagogy, so that children’s learning is supported at each stage – pre-school, primary and secondary – as appropriate to their age and level of development.

As the First Minister states in her introduction to the National Improvement Framework for Scottish Education, CfE ‘provides a broader education and sets higher standards for achievement than ever before. It has transformed the quality of children’s learning, and their confidence and motivation.’

Areas of concern

Nevertheless, since CfE’s introduction, Scotland has not made significant progress in terms of attainment in literacy and numeracy compared with other European countries, a fact which is generally attributed to a widening of the attainment gap between children from advantaged and disadvantaged home backgrounds. There is also concern about children and young people’s physical and mental health, and about the employment prospects of some school leavers.  

The four priorities of the National Improvement Framework are therefore:

  • improvement in attainment, specifically in reading, writing and numeracy
  • closing the attainment gap
  • improvement in children and young people’s health and well-being
  • improvement in sustained school leaver destinations for all young people.

To pursue these aims, the Scottish government has announced, among other measures:

  • a national system of standardised assessment for children in P 1, 4, 7 and S 3
  • a survey of children and young people’s health and well-being.  

It is easy to argue that data-gathering is unlikely to improve the quality of teaching and learning or the health and well-being of children and young people (and the argument is briefly outlined at the end of this paper). It is more difficult to suggest an alternative course of action for addressing the problems underpinning the four listed priorities. However, Upstart Scotland has a carefully-researched, evidence-based proposal for addressing these areas of concern.

Transformational change

The Curriculum for Excellence (like many other documents relating to children and education, such as Getting It Right For Every Child, the Early Years Framework and the recent Play Strategy) outlines admirable policies which should ensure that Scotland is the best place for children to grow up. However, at present, from the very start of the educational process, the policies concerned are not translating into practice.

Education does not, of course, take place in a vacuum. Children’s performance at school is inevitably affected by environmental and cultural factors beyond the school gates and over recent decades there have been considerable changes in terms of almost all Scottish children’s everyday experience:  

  • out-of-home childcare has become commonplace, even for very young children
  • children’s habits of play are greatly changed, and outdoor play is increasingly rare.

Neuroscience and developmental psychology are in accord that the two greatest influences on children’s physical, emotional, social and cognitive development are

  • the quality of their attachment to the adults who care for them
  • opportunities to engage in play, which is the inborn human learning drive.

If children are denied (or have inadequate access to) these essential ingredients of healthy development, it is likely to have long-term effects on their physical health, emotional resilience, social competence and self-regulation skills.   

Jaakkola_Children's_Party_2008_HPIM8834_Katutaidetta_CIn the Early Level and Level 1 of CfE, early years practitioners and teachers of P1 and P2 do not feel able to take a developmental approach to children’s education, which up to the age of 6 or 7 should be essentially play-based (see below). There are also problems in ensuring that the quality of out-of-home care for children of three and four (and younger) is as high as it should and could be. If transformational change is to be brought about so that the education of all Scotland’s children is built on the firmest possible foundations, it is vital that these factors are addressed.

For all children, but particularly for those from less advantaged homes, the quality of out-of-home care in the early years is of immense importance. Similarly, if young children do not engage regularly in active, creative play (especially outdoor play) at home, they need plenty of time and space to play in the first three or four years of state-provided education.       

Early education and the culture of ‘schooling’

The reasons behind Scotland’s failure to translate CfE policy into practice include:

  • cultural attitudes to the function of ‘schools’, which are seen by the overwhelming majority of adults as a place where children are ‘taught by teachers’ and where the first priority is children’s acquisition of the three Rs  
  • parental expectations of what children should achieve when they start primary school (‘Is he reading yet?’)
  • the influence of the increasing ‘schoolification’ of early years (EY) practice in the USA and UK
  • the professional divide between EY practitioners and primary teachers, and their different approaches to education
  • the hierarchical nature of the educational establishment, which results in EY authorities finding themselves at the bottom of the academic pecking order so that their voices are seldom heard in national debate.

Above all, and contributing to all the points listed above, is Scotland’s extremely early school starting age.  When everyone in a nation has been schooled since childhood that schooling begins at five, or even four, cultural attitudes to the education of young children are fixed on ideas of ‘top-down teaching’ and an early introduction to the three Rs.

graphicIn fact, in 66% of countries worldwide, the school starting age is 6 and in 22% (including many that now perform well above average in international comparisons of educational achievement and childhood well-being) it is seven.  The 12% that have historically chosen to start school earlier – and whose performance in both education and well-being is distinctly lack-lustre – are all members (or ex-members) of the British Empire.  

Scotland’s early school starting age not only means that formal schooling starts before many children are physically, emotionally, socially and cognitively ‘ready’ and able to take full advantage of it. It also meant that, when widespread demand for early childcare arose in the closing decades of the 20th century, it was only necessary to provide childcare for about two years. It was therefore seen primarily as ‘child-minding’ and the political emphasis was on getting parents into work, rather than on children’s development. So at a time when the quality of children’s early care and their need to learn through play is arguably more important than at any time in history, there was little interest or investment in these aspects of childcare.

In countries such as Finland, where – owing to a school starting age of seven – widespread demand for early childcare began in the 1970s, early years authorities have had forty years to develop a highly effective system of kindergarten care and education, while Scotland is still in the early stages of development. There has also been more support for Finnish early years educational development because children in Finland spend four years in their kindergarten settings, as opposed to Scottish children’s two years of pre-school ‘child-minding’ and two years of prematurely formal schooling. (This is extremely galling for EY specialists in Scotland, as our country has a very proud tradition of early years provision and scholarship, but – as stated above – the voices of EY authorities are seldom heard.)

It is no coincidence that Finland has, since international surveys began, been the highest (or near the highest) achieving country in both education and childhood well-being while Scotland – despite constant and considerable effort on behalf of its EY practitioners and teaching force – still struggles to deal with the four priorities listed above.


Upstart Scotland’s proposal

Upstart’s proposal is that Scotland should ensure all children have the effective, play-based, developmentally-appropriate start to the educational process recommended in CfE by the ring-fencing of four years (3-7) as a dedicated kindergarten stage, with a different ethos from the rest of the educational system.

The key defining difference in terms of ethos would be that, in the kindergarten stage, play is central to the learning process and adult support for children’s learning is based on each child’s developmental level, rather than curricular aims or arbitrarily-determined ‘outcomes’. 

There is now considerable evidence that play is the inborn learning drive of our species. Along with sensitive adult support and guidance, children’s own active, self-directed play is widely recognised as critical to the development of:

  • physical coordination and confidence, the ability to focus attention and control behaviour
  • emotional strengths, including a can-do attitude, resilience and the patience to pursue long-term aims, rather than immediate rewards
  • social competence, such as getting along with their peers, working collaboratively in a group and communication skills (including active listening)
  • cognitive capacities, such as the use of language to explore and express ideas, and ‘common-sense understanding’ of the world and how it works, which underpins mathematical and scientific abilities.

When play is allowed to drive the educational process until children are seven years old – rather than ‘top-down teaching’ and educational targets driving out play – there is the best possible chance of all children arriving in primary school with well-developed powers of self-regulation. Self-regulation is a far better basis for educational progress and lifelong resilience than meek compliance or, in the case of far too many children, bewilderment, fear and eventual disaffection.

The aims of the Upstart Scotland campaign, to be launched in 2016, are therefore:

  • to establish a statutory play-based ‘kindergarten stage’ for Scottish children – based on well-established developmental principles and similar to the systems in Nordic countries – with a recognisably different ethos from primary schooling
  • to stress the importance, for long-term mental health and well-being, of ensuring that between the ages of three and seven children are free from the pressure of the formal school system and educational target-setting
  • to raise awareness of the role of early years education in ‘levelling the educational playing field’, by providing all children with secure foundations for school-based and lifelong learning
  • to argue the case for play (particularly outdoor play and contact with the natural world) as an inborn human instinct, vital to children’s physical, emotional, social and cognitive development, and seriously lacking in the lives of many 21st century children
  • to highlight the importance of supporting children’s social, emotional and spoken language development in the early years, as the basis for successful later learning of the three Rs and educational achievement in general
  • to draw attention to the extremely early school starting age in UK countries (as opposed to the rest of the world), and the growing evidence of a connection between ‘schoolification’ of early years education the widening achievement gap between rich and poor in the USA and UK
  • to highlight the need for a well-qualified, highly-respected early years workforce with a common understanding of the principles of child development and the importance of ‘attunement’ (the capacity to ‘tune into’ young children’s needs, intentions and emotions) in anyone working with the under-sevens.

Further information and the first draft of an evidence base are available on www.upstart.scot.

The tests don’t work

Upstart Scotland is opposed to the introduction of national standardised testing of the type suggested in the National Improvement Framework. Testing systems of this kind have been in use in the USA and England for many years but according to a recent report by Professor Merryn Hughes (Exam Factories, 2015):

There is no evidence as yet that accountability measures can reduce the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. There is evidence that disadvantaged children, who on average have lower attainment than their peers and are therefore under greater pressure to meet targets, can become disaffected as a result of experiencing ‘failure’, and this is being exacerbated by recent changes to the curriculum to make it more demanding and challenging.’

kid-165256_1920It therefore seems highly unlikely therefore that standardised testing will make any significant difference in Scotland. It will, however, put extra pressure on pupils, teachers and parents to achieve good test results, so is also likely to result in a narrowing of the curriculum due to the well-known phenomenon of ‘teaching to the test’. It is also likely to contribute to further ‘schoolification’ of early years practice, as it has in the USA and England.

Testing may also adversely affect health and well-being, since a high-stakes testing regime will add to the many pressures that now beset the younger generation. Over the last decade, there have been reports of alarming increases in mental health problems among children and young people, especially in terms of attention deficit, depression, self-harm and eating disorders. The reasons behind these increases are undoubtedly complex, and associated with aspects of 21st century culture and lifestyles mentioned earlier, but psychologists now consider that a lack of emotional resilience is a significant contributory factor. Attachment and play during children’s early years are both recognised as ways of developing resilience.   

Readiness for life

The arguments above have addressed the first three priorities listed in the National Improvement Framework:

  • improvement in attainment, specifically in reading, writing and numeracy
  • closing the attainment gap
  • improvement in children and young people’s health and well-being
  • improvement in sustained school leaver destinations for all young people.

A dedicated kindergarten stage would also address the final priority, since the purpose of kindergarten education is to develop ‘the whole child’.  It is not concerned with a narrow definition of ‘school readiness’ but with readiness for life in general, and for lifelong learning. 

father-713690_1280The life-skills required for success in the world of work are exactly those that nature designs children to acquire through play: social skills, perseverance, creativity, problem-solving ability, the capacity to collaborate and cooperate, and the powers of self-regulation needed to survive and thrive in any institutional setting.  

Upstart therefore urges the Scottish government to redirect the financial resources currently ear-marked for national testing towards

  • the establishment of a kindergarten stage
  • improving the capacity of the early years workforce  

to ensure that all children start their education on the levellest of possible playing fields, physically, emotionally, socially and cognitively ready and able to learn.

Sue Palmer

Chair, Upstart Scotland

November 5th, 2015

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