Scotland’s Schools: Time For Reflection

By Fiona Grahame

Scotland’s Education system was once spoken of with great pride. Not only by Scots but around the world. Is it still deserving of such high praise or do we need to see system change? This article will explore the future for Scotland’s schools.

Let’s start at the beginning and state quite clearly that school is not childcare.

Early Years

The Early Years of schooling are the foundation blocks of the learning and teaching environment. It is where children will find the thrill of learning and exploring activities with their peer group. It is also where, for many children, bad experiences of that environment will disengage them from schooling, not just in the early years but into senior stages and even adulthood.

Children in Scotland start formal schooling between the ages of 4.5 and 5.5. Before this most will have had experience at Nursery and Pre-School providers. This article will focus on what happens with the formal state school system and not include the hugely valuable role played by the pre-school providers.

Transition points are always crucial and transferring from Nursery to Primary 1, as it is termed in Scotland, is mostly done with great care and forward thinking by all involved – in the school , at home and the child.

The starting age for formal schooling in Scotland is young. This is not about readiness to read or do number work. This is about being physically and mentally ready for the formal structures that the classroom imposes. Sitting still at a desk/table even for a short period, going for lunch, meeting with a wider group of children, being out in the playground, travelling to school (perhaps on a bus) – just some of the changes that a child as young as four and a half has to cope with in Primary 1.

If we look at Finland, always touted as the best education system in the world, children start school at age 7. Before this children attend day care centres where the emphasis is on whole child development – social skills, communication and lots of outdoor experiences. The year before starting school, when the child is 6 they go to Pre-School which lasts for 4 hours a day. This is where they learn letters and reading but also lots of play and outdoor experiences.

The Curriculum

The Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) was intended to transform learning and teaching in Scotland’s schools. Originally it was based on excellent practice which had been developed by classroom teachers. Those early days of development were ones of great expectations in which children would learn skills allowing cross curricula links.

“Numeracy, health and well-being and literacy are all recognised to be especially important and are the responsibility of every member of staff, regardless of their specialist subject.” Curriculum for Excellence

Running alongside the development of what children were learning was also how they were learning. Assessment used not in a check list but to be supportive and point out the next steps.

And the CfE has 7 broad principles in its design

  • Enjoyment and challenge
  • Progression
  • Breadth
  • Depth
  • Coherence
  • Choice and personalisation
  • Relevance

Note what comes at the top of that list –Enjoyment and Challenge – and this is for all stages in the school system.

The Covid19 Pandemic

Scotland’s schools closed on 20th of March due to the public health restrictions of the deadly virus, Covid19. Some of the schools started back on 11th of August and all others by the 18th.

During the closure pupils were provided with learning activities which they could access online or if that was not possible schools provided materials to be used at home. Teachers and education staff provided class based activities for the children of essential workers. The lockdown meant many people were working from home and some parents found difficulty in adapting to the ‘home schooling’ environment.

It was first thought that the return to school would be a phased approach with the use of blended learning but this was not to happen and pupils returned to school by 18th of August.

New guidance was issued to schools which all were expected to adhere to.

It states quite clearly

“We do not however expect the return to school in August to be a return to normality. “ Coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance on preparing for the start of the new school term in August 2020 – version 2

Understandably because we are in a public health emergency, measures to limit/prevent the transmission of Covid19 were central to the guidance.

Essential public health measures include:

  • enhanced hygiene and environmental cleaning arrangements;
  • minimising contact with others (groupings, maintaining distancing for young people in secondary schools and physical distancing for adults);
  • wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) where necessary;
  • a requirement that people who are ill stay at home; and
  • active engagement with Test and Protect.

For younger children bringing in their own toys was to be discouraged and although books could go home from school they should be cleaned when they return – and certainly not shared with others, that includes the teaching staff.

The return to school was definitely not a return to normal. Parents are no longer permitted to enter the school and so face to face meetings, if you are worried about your child, are gone and you have to have chats over the phone – or virtually. The classroom layout has changed and the routine of the school day is different too.

These are huge changes for children to deal with and especially younger children. They have been isolated from friends and family for months. They may not have had any ‘school’ type learning in all that time if that was not possible in the home environment.

In recognition of this the guidance from the Scottish Government to schools states:

” Balancing efforts to address lost learning with children and young people’s social and emotional needs should be a priority.

This document Coronavirus (COVID-19): support for continuity in learning acknowledges the problem of lost learning but central to it are the human rights of the child and its starting point is health and wellbeing.

Of great concern to anyone with an interest in our young people and in education in Scotland is that some schools are not adhering to this guidance. No allowance is being made for the psychological impact on children for being so long out of school and for the new conditions they returned to.

“The psychological impact of the outbreak and the necessary public health control measures are likely to have had significant social, emotional and developmental effects on many children and young people and, consequently, achievement.”


“Children and young people may need additional time and support to re-adjust to the school environment.”

This is important for all ages but particularly for young children for whom those early stages are crucial as a foundation for future learning.

It is deeply concerning, actually shocking, to hear of children as young as 6 being sent home with unfinished classroom work and of being deprived of playing with their school friends during break as punishment for not completing tasks.

Where is the pedagogical understanding about the effects of long periods of isolation on child development?

Where is the understanding of the health and wellbeing of a child when it is to sit still at a desk when others are outside running around and playing with their pals?

Where is the adherence to the human rights of the child?

Remember what was at the top of the list in the Curriculum for Excellence: ‘Enjoyment and Challenge‘. And that health and wellbeing were especially important and the responsibility of all staff.

Governments can fund education in increasing amounts, they can produce initiatives and update various parts of the CfE but when you have those who are providing the teaching and learning casting aside the emotional needs of the child, failing to understand the basics of wellbeing, then no amount of money or digital gadgetry will address the chasm opening up in our schools for some of our children.

The Future

Covid19 could be with us for many years to come. There is no vaccine and no one knows how long the world, where the virus transmission is increasing, will have to deal with its deadly and life changing consequences.

Education will have to adapt – just like everything else to these new conditions.

This is an opportunity for Scotland to have a long hard look at its school system where the education divide continues.

Raising the enrolment age for formal schooling to 7 whilst providing excellent pre-school provision is a starting point.

Ensuring teachers and education staff are trained in additional needs and that those doing the teaching are actually providing learning opportunities which pupils will find enjoyable and challenging.

Covid19 is more easily transmitted indoors – so let’s do far more learning out of doors – exploring and learning about our environment.

These are not wild ideas but are based upon the best practice found in other education systems in the world. If we as a nation are really serious about Getting It Right For Every Child, then we must adapt to the new challenges ahead and develop an education system fit for the challenges of the 21st Century.

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4 replies »

  1. Finland is not the only example where formal education starts later (in Germany the age is 6 but entry can be deferred a year) and where education seems to work fine. Perhaps in UK and Scotland the very early start (which I find far too early) has to do with many parents expecting school to be some sort of childcare whilst working? Although good pre-schools, kindergarden etc. would provide the same service but focus less on formal skills than social ones, probably in itself beneficiary for the children. Perhaps COVID-19 forces us to consider new ways of education which could be a positive development alltogether despite having been ‘induced’ by a pandemic?

    • Really good article, again.

      Disappointed to hear that not all schools are sticking to the guidance.

      Re question in comments about perhaps parents using school as day care when they are working, I don’t think this is the case. When I went to primary school in the late 1960s/early 70s it was the norm for married women, especially mothers, to stay at home and not work. The school starting age was the same then.

  2. Just my tuppenceworth…..

    And another bit….

    I think there have always been good teachers, and bad teachers – possibly always will be. Remember those blackboards which swivelled on a central axis? I remember, second year at Primary school, so we were about 6/7 years old, the nun in charge of the class, stood a little girl behind the blackboard, and the idea was, that, as the nun swivelled the board, and we could see our classmate, we were to laugh at her. This was punishment for some minor misdemeanour.
    Some laughed, most of us just glared at the nun, who we hated.
    Afterwards, at playtime, we got the ones who had laughed, and shoved their faces in muddy puddles. Maybe not right behaviour, but maybe with some idea that, if people won’t behave right because they choose to, you have to make them do so.
    I got into a lot of trouble for shoving someone’s face in a puddle, but I didn’t care.
    The blackboard incident seems un-imaginable now, but there are probably some teachers still behaving in a similar way, and getting away with it. And the kids are possibly afraid to tell their parents, or their parents aren’t paying attention, and don’t get involved – maybe a case of seeing school as ‘child-care’?
    It takes both sets of adults, home and school, to teach a child.
    When Sister Benignus ( the most in-appropriately named nun – ever! ) told my Dad about me pushing someone’s face in the mud, and I told him why, he just smiled and took me home.
    Mum told me off for getting my dress muddy – but she was used to that! As Sr. Benignus kept on telling me – I was ‘A dirty little girl”. She also said that “God wouldn’t like me” because I was a dirty little girl. In my book, at that time, if God didn’t like me, he would strike me dead. He hadn’t done so, so I must be O.K. – dirty or not!

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