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

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

Schoolification isn’t working


Last month saw another article from across the Atlantic comparing ‘the joyful, illiterate kindergarteners of Finland‘ with their stressed, ‘schoolified’ counterparts in America. This one, however, was followed up a week later with by a report in the Washington Post about the first actual comparative study of early years provision in the USA and Scandinavia. And The Gift of Time? School starting age and mental health, from the US National Bureau of Economic Research, shows what everyone in early years education already knows: schoolification isn’t working.

In the USA, the first grade class has always been known as kindergarten (K for short) and children are enrolled when they are five. Until the turn of the century, Grade K was a gentle, play-based introduction to education, in which children’s social, emotional and physical development were accorded at least as much attention as narrow definitions of ‘school readiness’. But all this changed in 2001 when George Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ legislation made standards of attainment in literacy and numeracy central to all educational practice.

Image: Flickr

Image: Flickr

By 2010 a ‘common core curriculum’ with tests and targets starting at Grade K, had ensured that ‘kindergarten’ is now actually the first year of formal schooling in the US, bringing it into line with Scotland (and, of course, England where the early-start policy originated). Concern about falling standards means the US government is also sponsoring pre-K classes for disadvantaged four-year-olds, in which school readiness is a central factor. As in other early-start countries, this has caused increasing anxiety among parents, and pressure on little children to start on reading, writing and sum-solving at an ever earlier age.

The NBER research mentioned above compares US education with that in Denmark where formal schooling starts at six. Before this, Danish children enjoy three years in kindergartens which still take a play-based, developmentally-appropriate approach to early years care and education. The NBER researchers don’t consider the effects of three years in an authentic kindergarten environment. They merely conclude that a one-year delay in the start of school dramatically reduces inattention/hyperactivity at age seven, a measure of self regulation with strong negative links to student achievement’, adding that these effects persist at age eleven.

Their conclusion reaffirms earlier long-term studies from the USA, listed on the Upstart evidence base. These include David Weikhart’s High/Scope Perry Project, of which he gives a powerful explanation on this video clip. And, as Weikhart points out, it’s not just educational achievement that suffers when children exposed to formal teaching before the age of six or seven – it’s mental health and well-being in general and the effects continue long after schooling has finished. The findings of Howard Friedman’s Longevity Project show that these ill-effects aren’t confined to disadvantaged children – his study focused on middle-class Californians who were ‘intelligent and good learners’. mother-99744_1920          

Not surprisingly, many US parents have already worked out the social, emotional and educational cost of early schoolification. According to the NBER paper, around a fifth of them now defer their children’s school entry, ensuring that they start their ‘kindergarten year’ at six, rather than five. It seems a fair bet that the parents who make this decision are well-read, middle-class parents (intelligent and good learners), meaning that the attainment gap in the US is likely to get worse as long as current educational policies are in place.  

As more research comes through, there’s likely to be increasing unrest about schoolification among the chattering classes of the USA. Sadly, however, just as our cousins across the Atlantic wake up to the damage their Race To The Top policy has caused, Scotland appears to be moving towards greater schoolification by introducing standardised testing of five-year-olds.

Why, oh why can’t we look North, to the joyful, illiterate kindergarteners of Finland, a country whose early education policies actually work?

Sue Palmer

Let’s Hear It For Story and Song


By Sue Palmer

I love hearing little children sing – not just because it’s such a joyous sound but because I know from research how important singing is in human development.  The latest blog contains:

  • an extract about story and song from my forthcoming book on early years education
  • a brilliant powerpoint by Maria Kay who’s currently doing a PhD about music and literacy.   
Let’s Hear It For Story and Song!

Adapted from The Three Rs (Chapter 4 of Upstart: the case for raising the school starting age and providing what the under-sevens really need – to be published by Floris Books, June 2016)

There are two extremely helpful activities, threaded throughout the day in most European kindergartens, which children enjoy enormously, and which human adults have unconsciously used to develop children’s language and listening skills since time immemorial – story and songUnfortunately, in UK preschools and early primary classrooms, parental anxiety and ‘top-down’ pressure to meet literacy and numeracy targets mean practitioners have little time for these popular early years activities. But, as a literacy specialist, I’m convinced that over-focus on academic skills in the years between three and six is often counter-productive.  

children-246848_1280Let’s start with the developmental advantages of singing. Along with dancing and moving to music, it helps sensitise children to rhythm and pattern, develops their coordination and control (including the ability to articulate clearly), and enhances connectivity between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Singing is also very helpful for developing memory skills, upon which a great deal of human learning depends. All sorts of facts are easier to remember when set to music (the alphabet, for instance, and the times tables) and learning any song by heart helps strengthen children’s auditory memory – that is, the ability to remember increasingly long sequences of sound. This is vital for a species that communicates in the long sequences of sound known as language.  

It also explains why children enjoy songs, rhymes and musical activities so much. Nature has programmed them to do so. Evolutionary biologists believe that, even before homo sapiens developed language, Neanderthal parents were crooning to their off-spring and yodelling messages across the hunting grounds. And anthropologists tell us that every human culture that’s ever existed appears to have had a tradition of song and dance. So when an activity that aids learning comes so naturally to young human beings, it makes sense to encourage it. (‘Why do you do so much music,’ I once asked a Finnish kindergarten teacher. ‘Music trains the mind to pattern and the ears to sound,’ she replied, clearly amazed that any educator would ask such a daft question.)

Picture from Flickr

Picture from Flickr

Nature has also programmed children to enjoy stories. Listening to a well-told tale tunes them into the rhythms and cadences of speech and the more often an adult retells the tale, the more meaningful particular words and phrases become. The young listener thus finds it progressively easier to follow the thread of a narrative, understand the meaning of new words and expressions, and reproduce these words and phrases in their own speech.  When we read stories to children we also develop their auditory memory for the rhythms, patterns and devices of written English so that – once they’ve got phonics sorted – they’ll find it easy to follow the flow of written sentences, then paragraphs, then complete narratives.*  

Stories are important for thinking skills too. Repeated exposure to spoken narrative develops children’s capacity for linear, sequential thought – the sort of thought required for logical analysis (it’s no coincidence that we talk about being able to ‘think straight’). And since the actions of the characters in stories have consequences, narrative helps drive home the significance of cause and effect, not to mention offering insights into human behaviour and opportunities to ponder moral dilemmas. What’s more, while they’re listening to a story, children have to ‘make the pictures inside their heads’, a serious contribution to their long-term capacity for mental imagery and creativity.

Picture from Flickr

Picture from Flickr

And there are wider implications. The educational philosopher Kieran Egan maintains that homo sapiens is ‘a storying animal; we make sense of things commonly in story-form; ours is largely a story-shaped world‘ and that stories are basically ‘[mental] tools for organising our emotions‘. Since one of the most significant factors in early childhood is learning to understand and control emotions, this gives listening to stories an important role in self-regulation as a whole.

*Incidentally, children who’ve enjoyed lots of sing-songs should find it comparatively easy to sort out phonics, because singing aids the developmental of phonological awareness. This starts with children’s appreciation of the ‘beats’ words (syllables), then the significance of rhyme, and  finally their sensitivity to pitch – vital for discriminating different vowel sounds.

Now have a look at this powerpoint slide by Maria Kay, author of Sound Before Symbol (Sage Publications). It sums up how music and singing support the development of numerous subskills that underpin literacy development.  Unfortunately we can’t include animation for this slide, so that you can build up the subskills gradually, but if anyone wants a copy sent by We Transfer, please email 

For more information about Maria’s work see: Sounds and symbols

Pushing children at early ages likely to be unproductive


By Valerie Strauss  Washington Post August 17  2015

A new book by a professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine says that the nationwide push to teach children increasingly more complex concepts at earlier ages is likely counterproductive. In The Intuitive Parent: Why the Best Thing for Your Child Is You, Stephen Camara looks at at  an emerging body of research and finds, among other things, that:

  • Many schools force too much material onto the normally (and naturally) developing mind of young children and may inadvertently push children—especially boys—into looking like they have ADHD when they might not.
  • It is rare for a child to be precisely at “grade level: in every subject.

Camarata is a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and a professor of Hearing and Speech Sciences at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He is also an associate professor of Special Education at Peabody College at Vanderbilt. This was adapted from “The Intuitive Parent: Why the Best Thing for Your Child Is You” by Stephen Camarata, PhD. with permission of Current, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright (c) Stephen Camarata, 2015.

By Stephen Camarata

Given the nationwide push to teach children more and more complex concepts at earlier and earlier ages, you’d think that there surely must be an extensive scientific literature to support these efforts. Not only does no such data exist, but an emerging body of research indicates that attempts to accelerate intellectual development are in fact counterproductive.

Recently, a lead editorial in one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, Science, questioned why middle school children were being taught college and even graduate-school-level cell biology concepts when their developing minds were not yet ready to receive this complex information. How meaningful was rote memorization of features such as the Golgi apparatus, the editorial asked, if the children had not been taught the knowledge foundation and acquired problem-solving abilities in the underlying areas of cell structure, chemistry, and biology?

This problem is endemic to the entire educational enterprise, starting with preschool. Worse, the emphasis on “an overly strict attention to rules, procedure, and rote memorization” has extended even into the cradle, manifesting as “helpful guidance” to parents about how to “prepare” babies for future academic demands. The approach is displacing commonsense, intuitive nurturing time with “schoolwork” at home and in preschools across the country at ever younger ages.

Unfortunately, several factors are coalescing in modern society to change the emphasis in education from the development of reasoning to increased rote learning. Foremost is the ongoing pressure to “prepare” a baby’s brain to participate in traditional school-style learning at ever earlier ages. Many have questioned the wisdom of doing this, and a number of leading scholars have publicly worried about whether these efforts are damaging our children and stunting their intellectual growth. But so-called success in school is a high-stakes enterprise that weighs on the minds of parents from the time the baby is born, or even sooner.

In 2006, Dr. Ashlesha Datar, a social scientist at the RAND Corporation, conducted a study comparing children entering kindergarten “on time” to those whose parents held them out for a year. Professor Datar reported: “I find that entering kindergarten a year older significantly boosts test scores at kindergarten entry. More importantly, entering older implies a steeper test score trajectory during the first 2 years in school.”

Consider the implications of this research. Simply waiting until a child is older dramatically increases scores on kindergarten entrance exams. Is the child more intelligent? Does she have a higher potential than she had the year before? No! It is simply a matter of schools trying to teach too much too soon. Parents are responding by simply waiting until their child is more mature and his or her brain is more fully developed in order to take on academic material that should be taught to older children.

The impact of accelerated testing has had a disproportionate impact on boys. Studies have shown that the highest scores on kindergarten entrance exams are attained by older females. Although it is certainly true that both boys and girls show significantly higher entrance scores if they test when they’re older compared to those who’ve entered kindergarten at the usual age, this difference is even more pronounced when comparing older females to younger males entering on time. When a boy who is perfectly intelligent and on target in terms of physical and mental development attempts to enter kindergarten at the usual age of five years old, he will be at a significant disadvantage relative to the older boys and especially relative to the older girls that parents have held out of kindergarten for a year.

More than 35 years ago, professors Ken Hopkins at the University of Colorado and Glenn Bracht at the University of Minnesota studied the stability of IQ scores in the same children by testing them each year over a 10-year period, from when they entered first grade through eleventh grade (junior year of high school). The results showed that the scores of the kids in their sample were highly variable—meaning unstable—from year to year in first, second, and third grade, and were relatively variable until after a child finished fourth grade. Only after that, when the children were around age ten or eleven, did the scores become much more stable.

This finding that IQ scores obtained in kindergarten and early grammar school are not very stable has been repeatedly replicated. Professor Michael J. Roszkowski, at American College in Pennsylvania, completed a study designed to examine whether the earlier results would be the same if different kinds of IQ tests were used. His findings were highly similar to those reported earlier: There was considerable variation in IQ scores when children were retested. He noted that 68 percent of the students had higher IQs in fourth grade than they had in first grade, with the highest gain being 27 points! In simple terms, this child went from average (IQ of 103) to gifted (IQ of 130) after only three grades. Consider what this means for kindergarten testing: A school would miss out on some very talented students if they mistakenly believed that early testing provides an accurate estimate of a child’s long-term potential.

But schools continue to use entrance testing regardless of its unreliability, and the pressure some parents feel to secure places in prestigious schools by the time a child reaches kindergarten has induced them to push their children to be “successful” test takers at ever younger ages, reaching down even into infancy. Parents themselves begin “teaching to the test” by drilling their toddlers on vocabulary, numbers, letters, and other items usually encountered on kindergarten readiness tests, well before babies’ and toddlers’ minds are ready to appreciate and integrate this knowledge.

In a nutshell, there are two primary difficulties parents must address in modern education: 1) an increasingly irrational, accelerated curriculum that pressures children to learn material— and parents to teach it—long before their developing minds are ready; and 2) a one-size-fits-all assembly-line process based on age level rather than ability level.

There are a number of potential solutions to these challenges, and they fall into two broad classes. First, parents can work within the existing public or private school system and with individual teachers to adapt the classroom—and its curriculum—to meet their child’s needs. The second solution is to seek an alternative education. Both solutions can be successful: The truth is that all good teachers naturally and intuitively meet their students where they are intellectually. Unfortunately, however, increasing federal, state, and district- wide micromanagement of curricula in many public schools and spillover of this approach into some private schools is making it difficult for even the best teachers to follow their own instincts about how to best engage and teach individual children.

My suggestion is to interact with the teachers and do your best to individualize your child’s lessons. A helpful strategy is to observe your children doing their assigned work and to notice which items they can easily complete, which are a bit more difficult for them, and which ones they simply cannot do. Work with the teachers so that your child is responsible for the easy items and the ones that are of moderate difficulty. Try to negotiate holding off on the impossible items until your child is ready.

A second strategy for intuitive parents seeking to address the mismatch between current educational practices in their child’s educational needs is to seek alternative programs. These can take the form of Montessori, Waldorf, or other schools that overtly and automatically individualize their curricula to meet each child’s developmental needs. Many public school districts offer charter schools or magnet schools that provide alternatives to a one-size-fits-all educational approach, and there are private options as well in many cities.

Other intuitive parents take on homeschooling as a potential alternative solution. Historically, homeschool programs were often organized around concerns that religious beliefs and values were not being included in public school curricula. More recently, many more homeschool programs have been developed specifically to foster academic achievement based on each child’s individual learning style. Homeschooling is not for everyone, and it can be difficult to distinguish between the roles of parent and teacher at home! On the other hand, for parents who are on board with it, homeschooling can be an excellent alternative to other kinds of education. This option and curriculum are available also available for limited amounts of time, and be very effective for when there simply aren’t good choices for schools at specific times in your children’s development.

Regardless of which solution is right for you, the key is to be actively engaged in your child’s education.

Valerie Straus

Summerborns and winterborns


Astonishingly, on 8th September, the English Schools Minister Nick Gibb announced in Parliament that ‘Children should not start school till they are ready!’

The bad news is: this wasn’t because of a sudden Damascene conversion to the Upstart cause. The good news is: Mr Gibbs insisted English local authorities change their policy on deferment because of Parent Power.

In early-start countries, the youngest children in a class suffer particularly badly and the schoolification of early education in England has now become so intense that, over the last few months, parents of ‘summerborns’ have risen in protest. The Summerborn Children website provided a rallying point for families, who pooled their knowledge and launched a concerted campaign.

Confronted with the evidence that ‘summerborns’ suffer throughout their lifetimes – and a rising tide of popular protest — the government had no choice but to allow parents to defer their children’s school entry if they wish.    

There have since been several articles in the press – including two by Alison Pearson and Suzanne Moore – illustrating typical problems faced by parents of summerborn children.  

hands-403536_1280Let’s hope the triumph of Parent Power in England has knock-on effects in Scotland where, due to a different admission policy it’s the parents of ‘winterborns’ who often find themselves fighting local authority decisions on deferment (see the website Taking Parents Seriously). Watch this space for a blog by a mother who’s finally managed to defer her son’s school starting date, after several months of struggle and anxiety.

Unfortunately, it’s only a small proportion of parents who are informed and committed enough to go through the deferment process. Many children who’ve just turned four – often those most in need developmental support – are still obliged to start school long before they’re ready for formal learning.  

The irony is that, if Victorian politicians hadn’t insisted on children starting school so early, there’d be no need for children and parents to go through these ordeals. In countries where school starts later, the relative age of children in a class isn’t a problem, because an extra year or two in kindergarten makes so much difference in terms of maturity and development.  

The ‘winterborn question’ is yet another reason why Scotland needs a kindergarten stage for three- to seven-year-olds.

Sue Palmer    


Upstart in the news


As the campaign is still in its early infancy, we weren’t intending to start blogging for a while but there was some unexpected press coverage for the campaign last week:

The National: Current education system is ‘doing so much damage to children’ say campaigners

The Scotman: Children should start Primary school at seven.

This led several new supporters in our direction, so it seems worth spreading around on social media in the hope of attracting more people to contact  At present, our main aim is to rally as many interested parties as possible to the Upstart campaign for a statutory play-based kindergarten stage for children aged three to seven.   

In the coming months we’ll use this blog to expand on our reasons for believing why a kindergarten stage is important… and why it becomes more important every day in a quick-fix, fast-moving, 21st century world. But as a way of setting the stage, the short video below sums up the significance of play in children’s development.

It was created by the International Play Association (IPA) to support the 2013 General Comment on Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.  And there’s a Scottish connection because one of Upstart’s earliest supporters, Theresa Casey, is currently President of IPA and was involved in composing the General Comment.  

There’s now overwhelming evidence that providing children with space and time to play – particularly in the early years – helps ensure their long-term health and well-being.  What’s more, rather than relying on some narrow concept of ‘school readiness’, active, creative play is an essential element in helping young children become committed, successful lifelong learners.

Sue Palmer, Chair of Upstart     

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