Changing the age children start school will not solve Scotland’s education crisis

Changing the age children start school will not solve Scotland’s education crisis

Last week I highlighted my fears that Scotland’s progressive curriculum was leaving its education system in crisis.

Now a Scottish education think-tank, Upstart Scotland, is calling for the country to follow the lead of some Scandinavian countries and raise the age children start school to seven.

In my view they’re focusing on the wrong issue. Whether you start earlier or slightly later is irrelevant. It’s what you do when formal education starts – and in reality in both Scotland and in England this is already seven (or key stage 2 as we call it).

I’m all in favour of play-based learning and basic literacy and numeracy training in reception and years 1 and 2. It can be called different things in different countries but in my view it is not formal education (although in the UK they say formal education starts from age 5).

Early years learning is more geared to the development of problem-solving skills and motor skills through play and discovery. Basic numeracy (learning to count) and literacy (learning letters and recognising basic words) can therefore also be incorporated.

I wholeheartedly agree that formal education should begin when a child is seven or in year 3. Where I disagree is with those that follow a progressive path in teaching primary school children from the ages of 7 to 11.

At this age, and to ensure pupils grasp the basics before they go to secondary school, education should follow a systematic programme of teaching.

The problem in Scotland and other jurisdictions with highly progressive approaches is the fact that systematic teaching is not really happening.

Scotland’s ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ is ‘vague’, ‘lacking in clarity’ and ‘wishy-washy’.

Maths in particular, is not taught in a sequential or structured way. Instead of focusing on solid technique and maths algorithms it relies on exploration and discovery and the learning any technique and/or algorithms always serves this aim. In other words, it is part of an exploratory process without clear learning objectives and children do not necessarily fully grasp a specific technique or algorithm as an outcome.

In Scotland they have, in effect, moved play and discovery-based learning into primary level teaching. Whilst learning can be fun and involve some of these elements it should not be the main focus.

Children should be learning their times tables by the end of year 3/4, and column addition and subtraction along with basic multiplication and division by the end of year 3.

And by the time children leave the primary system they should have a firm grasp of the four rules of number, the four rules of decimals and the four rules of fractions and be able to calculate basic percentages and find amounts from a percentage. I could list more things but this is the core of what they should be able to do.

Is this happening? The answer is no!

Primary education in the English system has significantly improved since the adoption of a far more structured and traditional curriculum in 2014 but there is still more that needs to change.

However, in Scotland, the ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ has been a backward step.

Many so-called experts are focused on the early years and simply think they can move this highly progressive and developmental approach to encompass primary education too.

But the developmental and progressive approach only works in the early years and that’s where it should stay.

Experts need to focus on the ‘elephant in the room’ – primary education (years 3-6) – get that right and the rest will fall into place.