Sue Palmer: Getting education right (or wrong) from the start

Ahead of the Upstart Scotland fringe meeting at IdeaSpace on 15 September, Upstart chair and former head teacher Sue Palmer says play should take precedence over standardised assessments

IMAGINE it's 2017, the year standardised assessments will be introduced in Scottish schools, and you’re a ‘disadvantaged’ child from one of Scotland’s poorest areas, just starting in P1. You’re probably feeling pretty bewildered as you enter the classroom. There aren't any books at home so reading and writing aren't on your radar and mum and dad are too busy keeping body and soul together to find time for teaching you to count. Since growing up in poverty means you're probably a year or so below average in language development and problem-solving skills, you’ve got a lot of groundwork to make up if you're going to reach national benchmarks like the criteria outlined at the bottom of this article.

What you need is time to play, talk, sing songs and listen to stories – the activities through which evolution has designed you to develop the underpinning skills on which literacy and numeracy depend. With plenty of these experiences you could catch up with luckier children. Without them, you'll find learning about phonics, number families and ‘pencil control’ very difficult. So unless your school ignores the pressure to crack on with reading, writing and sums (not easy to do in the current climate), the odds are you'll fall at the first fence in terms of education and spend the next twelve years trailing miserably 'below average'.

What you need is time to play, talk, sing songs and listen to stories – the activities through which evolution has designed you to develop the underpinning skills on which literacy and numeracy depend.

Now let's imagine you’re an ‘advantaged’ child from one of Scotland’s affluent areas, also starting in P1 in 2017. In this incarnation, you’ve benefited from a comfortable home, lots of social interaction, a garden to play in... So your language and problem-solving skills are probably slightly above average. What’s more, your parents are desperate for you to do well at school so they’ve read you plenty of stories, sung alphabet songs and number rhymes, and encouraged you to draw and write your name.

Unfortunately, ever since mum and dad heard about the benchmarks, they’ve been worried about you reaching them all. Their anxiety –and that of other aspirational parents – has caused your nursery to focus more on literacy and numeracy skills last year, which wasn’t much fun for a four-year-old. And now there’s homework every night, even though you’re utterly shattered after a full day at school.

Their anxiety –and that of other aspirational parents – has caused your nursery to focus more on literacy and numeracy skills last year, which wasn’t much fun for a four-year-old.

You too would like more time to play, talk, sing songs and listen to stories but you realise this literacy and numeracy business matters a lot to the grown-ups, so it’s best to put your head down. You’ve sussed out that it's important to be a ‘high-achieving student’, not a thicko who can’t pass the test... So it looks as if you’re all set for at least twelve years of pressure to maintain your lead.

Finally, let’s imagine you’re a five-year-old in Finland – the western nation that does best in international surveys of educational achievement. You enjoy a much better outlook than Scottish weans – two more years of kindergarten education. Plenty of active, outdoor play everyday, which will be great for your long-term physical and mental health. Lots of stories, song, drama, music, art activities and visits to the woods and other natural spaces. Individual support to learn about reading and writing at your own rate, but no obligation to put pen to paper till you start school at seven. By then the chances are that -- whatever your socio-economic background – you’ll have developed a love of learning for its own sake and the self-regulation skills needed to settle down happily in a classroom.

Providing a nurturing environment for three- to seven-year-olds, with time and space for self-directed play, pays long-term dividends for society.

After forty years of building the best early years provision in the world, Finland has one of the smallest gaps between rich and poor in Europe and one of the highest levels of childhood well-being. Providing a nurturing environment for three- to seven-year-olds, with time and space for self-directed play, pays long-term dividends for society. That doesn't just mean much less of an attainment gap, but brighter, more balanced citizens who all see the value of their country's educational slogans: 'Learn with joy' and 'Equity First'.

It’s hard to see how Scotland, with its absurdly early school starting age, will close our country’s steadily growing gap in educational attainment by introducing national assessment in P1. In fact, this policy seems far more likely to widen the gap, as well as swelling the alarming tide of mental health problems among children and young people, and the lack of understanding and empathy that drives inequality in hyper-competitive western nations.

So why don’t we learn from the Finns – and a growing pile of international research about the significance of social and emotional development in the early years – and concentrate on getting education right from the start? Let’s introduce a play-based kindergarten stage for three- to seven-year-olds, and close that gap through early nurture and play. For more information see Upstart Scotland.

Some national benchmarks for end of P1

– Reads aloud familiar texts with attention to simple punctuation.

– Uses a capital letter and a full stop correctly in sentences most of the time.

– Makes attempts to join sentences with simple conjunctions.

– Links 'number families' when explaining mental strategies for addition and

subtractions, e.g. 3+5=8, 5+3=8, 8-3=5, 8-5=3.

– Counts in jumps (skip counts) in 2s, 5s, 10s and uses this as a useful strategy to find how many in a larger group.

 

Picture courtesy of FEE International

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