Upstart: the best start in literacy for all children


Picture Raul Lieberwirth

On 19th September, literacy consultant Anne Glennie tweeted a link to a blog : ‘Why Upstart is a non-starter’. Her reason for objecting to our campaign is her belief that lack of attention to phonics teaching for the under-sevens will widen the attainment gap. As Upstart’s main literacy specialist, I was anxious to explain why we believe exactly the opposite. But I was just about to leave for a week’s family holiday so all I could do was tweet back a couple of points. Big mistake: Upstart’s twitter account was suddenly flooded with furious complaints from phonics enthusiasts, none of which was possible to answer in 140 characters.
So my reply to Anne Glennie has had to wait till my return. Apologies to readers that – since the subject is a complex and contentious one – this is a far longer blog than I’d usually post on the Upstart website. Apologies also to Ms Glennie for beginning by answering a tweeted question from Debbie Hepplewaite of England’s Reading Reform Foundation: ‘What do you mean by “formal”?’ The definitions of formal and informal education are critical to Upstart’s case, but I promise to cover the arguments around literacy and phonics when they’re out of the way.

‘Formal’ versus ‘informal’ education

We all know that children are learning from the moment they’re born (indeed, probably before they’re born) and their adults carers are constantly teaching them. In the early stages most of this teaching is unconscious – carers simply act as role-models for babies and toddlers, for communication, language and other aspects of behaviour.
As time goes on, adult teaching becomes more consciously intentional: e.g. potty training and teaching children to dress themselves. Carers may also introduce children to various skills they value, such as swimming, cooking, gardening, reading or counting. I’d describe this type of ‘care-based’ teaching and learning ‘informal’ because it’s personally-tailored to the child concerned, doesn’t follow a prescribed curriculum, and usually happens on an ad hoc basis.
Internationally, preschool systems of Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) have also been based on this sort of informal teaching/learning, along with the provision of opportunities for children to pursue their own self-directed learning through active, creative, social play. The emphasis during ECEC is on children’s all-round development, which is a highly complex biological process: aspects of physical, emotional, social and cognitive development are intricately interrelated.
With appropriate adult support, most children can be expected to acquire the skills and capacities on which more ‘formal’ learning is based by the age of six or seven, but biology is a messy business and child development isn’t a simple linear progression – children develop particular capacities in different ways and at different rates. This is why 66% of countries around the world chose six as the age when children start school and 22% chose seven. The UK and other English-speaking nations are very unusual in expecting children to start school at five, or even four, well before they’re likely to have developed a range of self-regulation skills.
There are many ways in which schools are designed for ‘formal’ as opposed to ‘informal’ teaching and learning:
children are organised into classes, almost always based on age rather than stage of development
there’s an agreed curriculum in which (although it may also cover PE, arts and social/emotional education) the main emphasis is on academic progress, beginning with the three Rs
there’s a daily/weekly timetable for these teaching/learning activities
the adult-in-charge is defined, and trained, as a ‘teacher’ (rather than a carer)
children’s progress is usually judged against age-related ‘benchmarks’ or ‘targets’.

After 150 years of state-funded education, adults now take it for granted that schools operate as described above, meaning that – as soon as children start school – parents, politicians and the general public expect them to start making progress in specific aspects of the three Rs. In the UK, this means there is very early switch in terms of adult expectations and educational ethos. It’s the timing of that switch that Upstart is challenging.

Too Much Too Soon … and the significance of nurture, nature and play

By referring to school as ‘formal education’, we aren’t suggesting that young children in UK primary schools spend all their time sitting at desks, doing sums and spelling. Good primary teaching is usually pretty playful and early years teachers are often extremely ingenious in turning skills-based learning into ‘fun’ teacher-directed activities. Our criticism isn’t of teachers, but of the school starting age – and the expectations it generates, in terms of children’s learning of specific literacy and numeracy skills.

There is no reason (other than an economically-motivated decision by Victorian politicians) for ‘formal’ education to begin before the age of six. The international evidence (see Evidence section on our website) shows there is nothing to gain in terms of long-term academic performance, but much to lose in terms of social and emotional problems that can be triggered by a too-early start on formal learning.

There is now also a growing body of evidence about the importance of nurture and play in the first six or seven years of children’s lives, and the need for young children to spend time playing outdoors, preferably in natural surroundings. This is one of the key reasons for Upstart’s existence because, over recent decades, active outdoor play has seriously declined and its loss has coincided with alarming increases in physical and mental health problems in children and adolescents, as well as a growing number of ‘developmental disorders’ such as ADHD.

The children who are most affected by this change are those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The barriers to outdoor play – such as danger from traffic and the breakdown of local communities – are particularly pressing in the poorest areas of the country. But the decline of active, social, self-directed play during children’s most formative years affects all social classes, which is why Upstart believes the Scottish government should take immediate action to reintroduce it through a play-based kindergarten stage for the under-sevens. Our reasons are clearly outlined on our website, including the video made for our launch in May this year.

The foundations of literacy

Upstart’s arguments are therefore concerned with ‘big picture thinking’ about ECEC for the under-sevens and our interest is ensuring the best possible preparation for life in general, not just for school. However, this doesn’t mean that we under-estimate the importance of the three Rs, or the current debate about the attainment gap. Proficiency in literacy and numeracy is vital for all children’s long-term personal and economic well-being.

There are considerable differences between the life experiences that ‘advantaged’ and ‘disadvantaged’ four- and five-year-olds are likely to bring to school. In terms of literacy, the informal learning provided in an ‘advantaged’ family home is more likely to involve sharing picture books and singing nursery rhymes from not long after birth, opportunities for drawing and learning about the alphabet, and plenty of interesting excursions and experiences to talk about with mum and dad.

These activities develop children’s auditory discrimination, physical and visual skills, various types of memory, linguistic competence and confidence, awareness about the conventions of written language and a gradually widening spoken vocabulary. Literacy doesn’t come naturally to human beings, as spoken language does, so children’s predisposition to acquire literacy skills depends on these underpinning competences, which are nurtured through enjoyable interactions with adults (for example, see this excellent piece about the significance of rhyme).

If the educational playing field is to be a level one, children from less advantaged families also need plenty of these informal learning activities to lay sound foundations for later literacy acquisition. They’re therefore an important element in ECEC, where – just as in a caring family home – they can be integrated into the daily routine, as an element of ‘nurture’, rather than ‘education’. Unfortunately, at present, most Scottish children are entitled to only one or two years of part-time ECEC before proceeding to school, which doesn’t give much time for a nurture-based approach to literacy. (Or, indeed, the other aspects of developmentally-appropriate ECEC outlined above.)

Once formal education begins, it’s inevitably affected by the specific demands of the curriculum, rather than the more generalised outcomes of nurture. Parents and politicians expect schools to teach specific knowledge and skills, which in Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence are outlined in age-related benchmarks, beginning with the Early Level (end of P1). So, as soon as children start school, there’s an inevitable tendency to cut to the chase in terms of literacy skills, rather than to continue with a ‘big picture’ approach, rooted in nurture and play.

Huckt on fonix

Currently, the most obvious illustration of this change of approach relates to the explicit teaching of phonics. This is the symbolic system by which the sounds are represented by letters and groups of letters on the printed page. As Anne Glennie points out in her blog:
‘English … has a deep orthography, which gives rise to various complexities:
not least of which is the fact that we have 44+ phonemes (sounds) in English
and only 26 letters of the alphabet to represent them with. This, coupled with
direct borrowing from other languages, means that we have a huge number of
spelling alternatives’.

She then argues that: ‘it takes at least three years of teaching, learning and practice to master the basics of reading, writing and spelling’ and that the answer is not to start later but to ‘ensure that our practice “fills the gaps” for our disadvantaged children’.

These arguments have informed political understanding about literacy teaching across the English-speaking world for almost two decades, so that preoccupation with ‘filling in the gaps’ has focused increasingly on phonics teaching, rather than the provision of activities that promote all-round healthy development.

The over-focus on skills-based learning has led to growing anxiety among ‘advantaged’ parents that their children should start reading and writing as early as possible, contributing to the steady ‘schoolification’ of early years practice and thus further erosion of informal, care-based teaching and opportunities for self-directed play. It has also led to dismissal of research evidence about the importance of ‘big picture’ approaches to child development and widespread ignorance about the principles underpinning ECEC.

As a literacy specialist, I’m very keen on phonics teaching and have written a number of phonics courses (one of which was specifically recommended by the English government) and acted as a consultant on several others, including BBC literacy programmes between c 1998 and 2008. However, I’ve always accepted that phonics is merely one among many contributory elements in successful literacy acquisition. And I’ve never come across any evidence that formal teaching about the notoriously complex ‘deep orthography’ of the English language needs to begin before the age of six or seven.

Given that sound foundations are laid for literacy learning during ECEC, by this age the vast majority of children will be able to internalise the rules with reasonable ease – many phonic rules have more relevance to learning to write than to read, and the physical process of writing is also easier for children after the age of six. Before then, many children (particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds) are likely to struggle, leading to growing disaffection with literacy and, possibly, school-based learning in general (see also the two previous blogs on this website: Literacy, Learning and Luck and Kirsty, the Holyrood Baby).

Research shows that, while children can be trained in phonic decoding at an early age, by the time they reach double figures there’s no difference in reading competence between those who start formal learning at five and those who start at seven (although there is a difference in their attitudes to reading). However, as pointed out earlier, the repercussions of social and emotional issues connected with an early start last throughout their lives.

My conclusion is that, certainly for the under-sixes (and probably the under-sevens), the ‘informal teaching’ described in previous sections is more likely to lead to long-term interest in and commitment to literacy learning – the sort of commitment children need if they’re to put in the practice required for ‘automaticity’ in reading and writing.

From what I’ve heard of Anne Glennie’s work, she too cares greatly about developing children’s interest in – and indeed love of – language and literacy. I’m pretty sure we’d agree on most points about the best ways to teach reading and writing. The single difference is when ‘formal teaching’ of specific skills should begin.

There’s a great deal more information about the Upstart case on our website, including a section devoted to FAQs. The arguments are given in more detail in my book, Upstart: the case for raising the school starting age and providing what the under-sevens really need and I’m happy to discuss the issue of literacy learning with anyone who’s interested. However, the more specific an area of discussion about child development and learning becomes, the more impossible it is to operate in sound-bites, so please contact me via, rather than tweeting!

Sue Palmer, Chair of Upstart Scotland



by Sue Palmer.

I’m a literacy specialist. Over the last forty years, along with battalions of other literacy specialists, I’ve earnestly researched the way children learn to read and helped devise teaching methods and materials for use in primary classrooms. You’d think that, with all this applied brain power, we’d have found ways to turn the majority of children into enthusiastic readers.

Unfortunately, we haven’t. As standardised testing proliferated in primary schools, we certainly got better at teaching children how to pass literacy tests – although, even in this limited field, quite a few still don’t make the grade. But sadly, in the twilight of my career, I’m forced to conclude that children’s chances of becoming fluent, committed readers are significantly lower than they were fifty years ago. Which is really worrying, because neuroscience now confirms that reading fluency is probably the single most important factor in overall educational success.

children-learning-888892_1280Part of the problem is, of course, down to technological and cultural change. Today’s children have access to many amazing sources of information and entertainment – ways that involve minimal need for literacy skills – so there’s little motivation for them to settle down with a book.

And motivation is essential because it takes a lot of practice to achieve a level of reading fluency that makes it easy – and pleasurable – to read full-length texts. Unless children actually want to read, they’re unlikely to put in that effort. Endless lessons in ‘phonics’ and ‘comprehension’ won’t make them any keener.

In fact, the most motivated children are those who learn to read without much explicit teaching, as a result of pleasurable experiences before starting school. These are the ‘lucky’ children who:

  • share loving interactions with their carers from the moment they’re born, including lots of songs and rhymes and stories
  • enjoy plenty of opportunities for active, creative play with adult carers and, from the age of about three, with other children – as often as possible outdoors
  • regularly share picture books with adults, thus discovering the pleasure of ‘a good read’
  • aren’t pushed to read and write, just gently supported, at their own level, when they show an interest.

It’s not as if these ingredients of literacy luck are unknown. Indeed, the Scottish government has done a great deal to publicise them through its PlayTalk Read project for the parents of children under three. The trouble is that most parents are now out at work for most of the day and don’t have much time left over for playing, singing and sharing stories with their off-spring. And even the luckiest children don’t usually start reading by the age of four or five.

children-1547261_640This too has been widely known ever since schooling began. It’s why the Ancient Greeks didn’t send children to school till they were seven and why formal education in the vast majority of the world doesn’t start till at least six. It’s also why the European countries with the best record in terms of literacy today provide play-based kindergarten education for the under-sevens, with plenty of time for stories and song, as well as lots of opportunities for active, outdoor play. In a kindergarten, children who show an interest in reading and writing are supported at their own level but there’s no formal teaching till they start school. In fact, research has shown no long-term advantage in starting literacy instruction before the age of seven but plenty of potential for long-term damage – physical, emotional, social and cognitive.

The kindergarten approach is, of course, also highly beneficial in terms of physical and mental health – especially for twenty-first century children, who usually have limited opportunities for active, social, outdoor play during their early years. Play is children’s inborn learning drive, and the natural way to develop physical coordination and control, social skills, creativity, emotional resilience and a love of learning for its own sake.

So I’ve concluded that the best way to improve reading standards in Scottish schools – and thus to start closing that shameful attainment gap – is to stop obsessing about reading and writing during children’s early years. By introducing a kindergarten stage for three- to seven-year-olds, with the focus on nurture, play, health and well-being, Scotland could give all young children the best possible start in life, including the soundest possible foundations for reading and writing when formal education begins.

We know what makes children ‘lucky’ in terms of literacy – and of learning in general – so we should provide it for every one of them.

Sue Palmer is the author of many books on literacy and child development. Her latest – Upstart: the case for raising the school starting age and providing what the under-sevens really need (Floris Books, £9.99) – was published this summer.

Kirsty (the Holyrood baby) and P1 assessment


On 12th May 2016, thanks to Holyrood magazine, a fictional baby called Kirsty was born in one of Scotland’s most deprived communities. In a letter introducing Kirsty, Holyrood’s editor challenges all Scottish parliamentarians to improve her life chances over the next five years. Closing the attainment gap is, of course, central to this aim. And five years from now, Kirsty will be just about to start school.

Let’s assume that all goes to plan and Kirsty sits the P1 national assessment due to be introduced in 2017. Armed with this information on her pupils’ literacy and numeracy ‘readiness’, Kirsty’s teacher can get started on the three Rs. With thirty-odd small children cooped up in a confined space – all at very different developmental stages, and many far from ready to settle down behind a desk – this isn’t an easy task so her school probably groups pupils by ability. And, since disadvantaged children usually lag behind their more fortunate peers in most aspects of development, including those underpinning acdemic ‘readiness’, Kirsty has an above-average chance of of ending up in the ‘slow group’.

This doesn’t bode well. Despite the anodyne names teachers give to ability groups, five-year-old children quickly work out which is ‘top’ and which ‘bottom’. And this early academic ranking soon affects their self-image as learners, their attitude to school … and the school’s attitude to them. It’s well-established that an unintended consequence of a too-early focus on academic work is the creation of self-fulfilling prophecies.

child-865116_640However, Kirsty may be lucky. She was born in May, so by August 2021 she’ll be five and a quarter years old. Many of her classmates, born during the winter months, will be only four. At this stage in development, even six months can make a big difference (especially if it’s meant longer in nursery, being primed for ‘school readiness’), so being one of the oldest in the class should give Kirsty an edge in the P1 assessment. There’s a good chance our Holyrood baby will perform well enough to avoid the ‘slow group’.

She’s also lucky – at least in the short term – in having been born female. Girls are generally more socially aware than boys from birth and therefore quicker to develop social skills, including language. They’re also more likely to be able to sit still and do as they’re told in order to please the teacher, so less inclined to exhibit the ‘challenging behaviour’ that rapidly gets many disadvantaged boys a bad reputation in the staffroom. If Kirsty is a typical representative of her sex, she may adapt relatively easily to classroom life, pick up the basics of the three Rs and make good progress at primary school.

Unfortunately, it’s not just children’s academic trajectory that’s affected by an early start on formal schooling. Between the ages of three and seven, they’re still developing habits of mind and behaviour that will underpin their feelings of self-confidence and self-efficacy throughout life. Kirsty’s compliance with developmentally-inappropriate, adult-imposed norms at an extremely formative age is likely to affect her long-term attitudes and behaviour in ways that could leave her psychologically fragile in years to come. For instance, there’s a good chance she’ll be overly compliant, self-critical, dependent on extrinsic rewards and lacking in resilience.

girl-953412_1280Now if Kirsty were really lucky, she’d have been born in a country with a play-based kindergarten stage for three- to seven-year-olds. There she’d have time, space, support from well-trained staff and copious opportunities to be outdoors and active during her formative early years. She’d be free to explore, experiment and develop personal strengths such as self-reliance and problem-solving skills. She’d have the chance to listen to plenty of stories, join in with songs and music-making, take part in art and craft activities, play, talk, investigate, imagine and create. Four years of early play-based education can give every child – male or female, rich or poor – the best possible chance of developing a love of learning, a strong sense of self-efficacy and the emotional resilience to cope with challenges and bounce back from adversity throughout the rest of their lives.

This is why Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence endorses a kindergarten-type approach for the under-sevens. Sadly, its principles have not yet been put into practice in the majority of primary schools because, owing to our historically early school starting age, parents and politicians expect children to crack on with the three Rs from the age of five.

And according to John Stodler, General Secretary of the Association of Directors of Education Scotland (ADES), present government policy can only intensify these attitudes. In a recent interview with the TESS, he explained that councils would ‘philosophically’ be in favour of introducing a kindergarten stage but it’s now right off the cards. ‘Local authorities’ priority will be attainment and closing the gap,’ he said. ‘This will make them less likely to do something radical or creative or depart significantly from early reading and early numeracy skills.’

girl-489106_640So, even if Kirsty gets off to the best possible start, she’s unlikely to fulfil her true potential in the long-term. In an increasingly image-obsessed, gender-stereotypical culture, all girls need deep-seated self-confidence and resilience to see them through the pressures of twenty-first century adolescence. Disadvantaged girls need these personal strengths in trumps because they’re facing the additional challenges of poverty. At present, an alarming 80% of all fifteen-year-old girls in Scotland are suffering from school-related stress and associated health problems. Given her socio-economic circumstances, there’s good reason to fear that Kirsty will eventually join the swelling ranks of teenagers with a diagnosable mental health conditions.

Parliamentarians, please take note. The attainment gap will not be closed by an increasing focus on literacy and numeracy skills in the early years. Educational success is inextricably interwoven with health and well-being. In a culture where young children have fewer opportunities for active outdoor play than ever before in human history, all Scottish children would benefit from a kindergarten stage. But the ones with most to gain from the ‘gift of time’ for all-round development are children, like Kirsty, who are raised in poverty.

Sue Palmer

See Upstart: the case for raising the school starting age and providing what the under-sevens really need (Floris Books) for further details about how early years education can widen or narrow the poverty and gender gaps.

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: or their Facebook Page: or email

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.


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