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Play not tests

Last night I attended the launch the 'PlayNotTests' campaign being led by Sue Palmer and the Upstart organisation in Scotland. This campaign is aimed at getting the Scottish government to think again about their decision to introduce standardised testing into Scottish schools, particularly in Primary 1. Upstart is a group whose main aim is the establishment of a play-based 'kindergarten stage' in Scottish schools, and they want to delay children's introduction into the formal education system until they have reached seven years of age. Before that, Upstart and their supporters, of which I am one, believe that young children learn best, and begin to develop the attributes they will need for life and learning, through play based learning, most of which should be located outside of classrooms and school buildings. This is a model that has been successfully developed by a number of Nordic systems, with positive impacts on the well-being as well as the learning of young children in such systems.

There was a mixed audience of supporters last night, including parents, grandparents, teachers, school leaders, pre-school providers, professors and other academics, representatives of other professions agencies, and organisations, and a politician or two. I believe most of the audience shared Upstart's concerns with the education system and the direction of travel in Scotland. Although Upstart is an organisation focused on the earliest years of young children's education and development, they are quite clear on how this impacts further on in their education and into adulthood.

Scotland is faced with the introduction of standardised testing across primary education, including in Primary 1 (P1) which is part of the Early Level of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). Upstart, and many others, are rightly concerned with this, not only because the introduction of standardised testing flies in the face of the stated aims of CfE, but also because of the other consequences and negative outcomes that have been shown to follow from the introduction of such testing in schools, especially for very young learners. Such testing just adds to the stresses and pressures associated with formal education and can actually damage some young learners' learning and wellbeing, both in the long term and short term.

Sue introduced last night's campaign launch by setting the scene for why such a campaign was necessary. Starting formal schooling at the age of four or five causes problems for many children. There is a growing body of research that has linked starting school early to social, emotional and mental health problems in later childhood and beyond. (You can find more on all this by visiting the Upstart website) Scotland, like other countries, is facing increasing numbers of children with developmental disorders and mental health conditions. The reasons for this are complex, but lack of play and early pressure and focus on academic attainment are contributing to this situation.

Sue took us through a potted-history of human development, showing how we began to evolve and learn over time, through our ability to learn and adapt, and the development of language and communication. Through the evolutionary processes, human children are designed to develop certain skills and capacities naturally, and these are the foundations upon which we build formal education. She noted that ever since more formal education and schooling began to develop in different societies it was common in all of them that young children's' exposure to more formal schooling didn't commence till they were around seven years of age. She noted that in Greek and Roman education systems, it was at seven that young learners were considered as being able to deal with more formal learning. Before that they learned through play and by being outside, as they began to form the creative, resilience, self-regulation, social and problem solving attributes they would need in later life. She quoted Mohammed, 'The first seven years are for play' and many of the early leading educational researchers and thinkers, like Froebel, Montessori, Piaget, Steiner and Vygotsky, who all believed that most children were not ready for more formal education until they reached the age of seven.

UNESCO have said that 'Early childhood, defined as the period from birth to eight years old, is a time of remarkable growth with brain development at its peak. During this stage, children are highly influenced by the environment and the people who surround them.' They went on to add that early learning and childhood care is much more than a preparation for primary school, but was concerned with the development of  holistic social, physical, emotional and cognitive foundations necessary to support life-long learning and well-being.

Sue noted that we have a big problem in Scotland with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and the impact they have on the life-long well-being and achievement of individuals. Fortunately Scotland, driven by the work of Suzzane Zeedyk, Carol Craig and others, is at the forefront of educating our systems and society about the impact of ACEs and what we can do to address these. It was significant that both Suzanne and Carol were in attendance last night to offer their backing to the campaign.

Learning in the first formative years has to be centred on nurture, love and play. Through play children begin to develop the skills and attributes they will need in education and for life. These include the development of self-confidence, creativity, problem-solving, communication, social skills, a love of learning and finding out, as well as flexible learning. The World Economic Forum have identified the ten top skills individuals will need by 2020 and it is remarkable how close that list is to those skills and aptitudes developed by early play.


Sue then spoke of how taking such a play-based approach to early learning does not necessarily have to come at the cost of attainment and achievement. In the PISA rankings of 2016 the top three performing countries in Literacy, Maths and Science all had starting ages for formal education of either six or seven years. A recent longitudinal study in the USA has pointed to the fact that they are evidencing a deterioration in performance of pupils, who started formal education early, after only two or three years, and the impacts can be felt as adults and in life-expectancy. There is a body of evidence building which shows that instead of raising attainment and closing gaps caused by disadvantage, the opposite is actually happening, especially in countries that have gone down the road of early introduction into formal education combined with high-stakes standardised testing.


Scotland as a nation faces another issue, which is possibly being experienced elsewhere too. That is, our children are becoming less and less active and more and more sedentary in their leisure time. This has negative impacts on their physical and mental well-being, and the drive to begin formal education, and associated testing, does nothing to help that situation. It has been reported that Scottish children are the least active in the world! The standout shocking statistic for me last night was that three quarters of UK children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates! (reported in The Guardian 25/03/16) There are more and more reports of rising mental health issues in young children and adolescents, with an associated rise in anxiety issues. Sue pointed out that having children enter early formal education does nothing to address such issues, and may be actually causing some of them. Add testing at P1 and some people are already asking is this another ACE being generated by the system?


She finished by illustrating some of The United Nations Convention On The Rights Of The Child, and noted if we were being true to some of these, we would have an informal play-based education for our learners up to seven and no standardised testing. I wonder how often Governments and others sign up to, and agree, with grand statements and resolutions like this, until they fly in the face of their own agendas?


It was perhaps appropriate that following Sue was the former Commissioner for Children and Young People in Scotland Tam Baillie who spoke next. He explained why he supports Upstart and their campaign, Sue and the organisation have such a focus on doing something to improve education and children's lives. He felt he wanted to be involved because of all the issues Sue had spoken of and the way Scottish society views and treats its children. He pointed out that the issues had been known and established over many years, but still they persist. Upstart was an organisation that was driven to do something about some of this, and that it why he offered his support.


He was followed by Carol Craig, who has established the Centre for Confidence and Well-being which is working for cultural and social change in Scotland. She has written much and her latest book Hiding In Plain Sight is a powerful exploration of Scottish society and our tolerance of ACEs, as well as their impact across generations. She talked of her support for Upstart and how the issues they, and she were trying to address could not be solved by Government alone. We had to utilise the power of grandparents and society in general, to realise and recognise what the issues were, then to mobilise to take action, in order to change what was happening. These issues, were issues for everyone, and could not be solved by one person or one organisation alone, but acting collaboratively we could all take steps to address them whenever we could.

It was inspiring to hear, and to speak, to so many people last night, who are committed to making a difference. Suzanne has said many times that we can being doing harm to children, and not even realise we are doing it. We have to challenge cultures that allow this to happen. When we do know we are producing adverse effects, we need to stop and address the issues. To do anything less is a betrayal of our children and our society. I do hope the Scottish Government is listening to what is being said about testing in P1, and beyond, and is really looking at the evidence. If they are, then there is still hope for a reversal of what can only be another detrimental step for our youngest members of society. We have to be advocates on their behalf.

You can keep up to date with the campaign, and lend you support, by following Upstart Scotland on Twitter @UpstartScot and following the hashtag #PlayNotTests or check the website upstart.scot Please take any opportunity to speak to your MSP or MP, Councillors and headteachers about this issue.


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