Why we must lift school starting age to seven - Alex Cole-Hamilton

In 1880 the House of Commons made school education compulsory.

Wednesday, 31st March 2021, 7:00 am
The Lib Dems want the school starting age raised to seven

It was one of the most important and progressive developments in the conduct of human affairs and opened the door to social mobility and the creation of a middle class. It wasn’t all enlightenment though, parliament set the starting age at five, for no other reason than to do so would allow more women to go to work in the factories of the industrial revolution as cheap labour. It has been left there ever since.

At this election, Scottish Liberal Democrats want to lift the school starting age in Scotland to 7, in step with many other European countries like Finland, Poland and Estonia. These countries have some of the best academic performance score cards in the world. They recognise the importance of allowing children to ease into learning through play. By adopting a ‘kindergarten’ approach with those under 7, they hold back on formal tuition of literacy and numeracy allowing kids room to learn organically. Right now, in Scotland under the SNP, we’re some way from that.

Before the SNP came to power in 2007, we were celebrated in the international education community as a world leader in both primary and secondary schooling. That didn’t last. I must say from the outset, that our decline in educational performance was nothing to do with the valiant efforts of our teachers. The botched implementation of a new curriculum made worse by their failure to reduce class sizes to 18 (as the SNP had promised to do before they took power) saw attainment begin to sink. SNP ministers and spin doctors couldn’t understand it. Their response only made things worse. To try to get a better understanding they started a programme of national testing.

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As the saying goes, ‘you can’t fatten a pig for market just by measuring it’. And while the SNP collected a range of statistics which confirmed Scotland’s gradual decline, they took up precious class time for both teachers and pupils to complete a testing programme that did nothing to improve attainment. Unlike the European idyll of climbing trees and building dens at the age of 5, Scottish kids are being put through a testing regime that’s only purpose is to provide a dashboard of statistics for government mandarins.

Nicola Sturgeon began her tenure as First Minister asking to be judged against her performance on education. Seven years into her reign and things are worse than they were when she started. The attainment gap, for example, the gap between those learning in deprived and affluent communities, is closing at an almost glacial pace- a report published last week revealed it will take 35 years to close at the current rate. What was the First Minister’s response to this depressing reality? An election gimmick around the provision of laptops that kids could have done with at the start of lockdown. No wonder it backfired.

Education is the silver bullet, it can be the ladder out of poverty and the key to the door of social mobility. Early adoption of universal education helped to cement Scotland’s global reputation as an enlightened nation. It’s now time for us to follow the new global trail blazers in this field ending the testing regime and lifting the start of formal schooling to seven.