Politics - Policy & Ideas

2007 - 2022

Angelic Upstarts

There are deep ironies in the reflex defensiveness against the Upstart campaign to encourage play-based learning – either by extending this approach into primary school, or by delaying the school entry point.

The idea is based on the very simple observation that young children learn through play: observing and absorbing through repeat experimentation and interaction with the natural world. It’s an idea that will be painfully obvious to any parent, or anyone who has worked with children.

A Union of Learning

The first irony is that enthusiasts for compulsory testing of very young children are supporting a failed approach that has been backed enthusiastically by Conservatives and successive right-wing governments in England.

Second, some nationalists seem completely ignorant of the roots of Scottish educational theories, principles and origins. As Michael Gardiner writes in The Cultural Roots of British Devolution:

“The educational systems of England and Wales on one hand, and Scotland on the other, have never been unified, except for certain aspects of higher education entry. The Acts of Union guaranteed in principle the autonomy of each system, underscoring the the importance of separate educational traditions. Education has assumed a primary significance in stateless Scotland, where education  is viewed as fundamental to national identity.”

Establishing a distinct path – and encouraging mass participation – used to be a source of pride.

This is true right through the education system, as Murray Pittock observes The Road to Independence:

“Participation in higher education in Scotland has always been higher than was the case south of the border (17 as against 10 per cent in 1979 for example, while in the late 1990s Scotland reached the 50 per cent target desired for England by Tony Blair).”

Outdoor Learning

Third, those who are (rightly) celebrating Lesley Riddoch’s Nordic Horizons series and her more recent Nation films should listen to her own take on early education:

“Britain stands alone in ­forcing five year-olds into formal education at all. In 1870, the UK parliament chose an early school starting age so ­mothers could ­provide cheap labour in ­factories. Only 12 per cent of countries worldwide share British practice and they are all are former parts of the British Empire. Malta and Ireland, however, recently joined 66 per cent of the world’s ­countries, which start school at six. Meanwhile 22 per cent of countries including Finland, Estonia and Switzerland have a play-based kindergarten from 3-7. Perhaps that’s why they topped a recent OECD ­international review into education achievement.”

She continues:

“Sue Palmer, founder of Upstart Scotland, says “after ­primary four there are evidence-based arguments both ways about the value of testing. In primary one there are none at all. National standardised testing runs totally counter to the Curriculum for Excellence and nips in the bud the growing move towards play in the early years. It encourages teaching to the test, ­narrows the curriculum and changes the relationship between teachers and children – particularly damaging for disadvantaged children.” The urge to stuff education into five-year-old brains may be understandable but it’s not rational, helpful or kind.”

But whilst Riddoch is quite right to celebrate in particular the outdoor education traditions of our northern Scandic neighbours, such as the Bukkespranget Barnehagen with Norwegian Turid Bornholm (see Get the Bairns Oot!) – we don’t need to always look abroad for inspiring educational practice.

Deep Learning of the Heart, Hand and Head

The fourth irony is that much of what Upstart proposes, far from being some exotic innovation from abroad has its roots in the Edinburgh Social Union and the early free kindergarten movement of the 1890s.

Geddes introduced the idea of kindergarten through his own childhood experience and his interaction with Madame Montessori and other leading European educational thinkers of the day (see also Womanliness in the Slums: A Free Kindergarten in Early Twentieth‐Century Edinburgh by Elizabeth Darling.)

As Kenneth Cadenhead has written Patrick Geddes: Timeless Educational Ideas:

“Wonder is the seed of knowledge. This idea formed the foundation of Geddes’s educational thinking. Wonderment is natural for the young child. With encouragement and guidance, wonderment can be transformed into curiosity and a commitment to search for answers to one’s own questions. Geddes shows the importance of an environment that nurtures wonderment. He used a metaphor of the passion flower, comparing the sensitive, searching tendrils of the young vine to the child”:

“Each and every tendril of the young vine-shoot – or still the passion-flower – is at first sensitive and searching; yet when it finds no opportunity of attachment what can it do but curl in upon itself, into a small centred coil? Where the shoot is isolated, each soon becomes standardized to this “good form;” and this in quite a long row, all as similarly stiff, inert and unresponsive. Are not these the very types of the “good average men” we know so well from public school and college, whom we meet in clubs or business, or see in politics or in “Society”, and whose blameless respectability and settled decorum is no longer troubled by any personal urge or thought, or initiative towards action? Yet in each of these and all of these, youth’s passion flower tendrils have guided them to opportunity of realisation, instead of standardised futility.”

Geddes believed that the child’s desire of seeing, touching, handling, smelling, tasting, and hearing are all true and healthy hungers, and these should be cultivated, not squelched. He likens the child’s wonderment to scientists whose habits of observing and thinking for themselves drive them to pursue questions that are important. He believed that the investigations of people like Darwin, Pasteur, Huxley, Hall and others he had known were simply the eager child just grown up. Obviously, this is an oversimplification.; however, it might be worth our rethinking the notion of wonder as the seed of knowledge. Wonderment is something that we have working for us if we can cultivate it rather than ignore it in an overprescriptive curriculum and systems of evaluation that do not place importance on the questions of children and young people.”

Geddes’s theory of education cannot be separated from his concept of the garden. In all he advocated a holism based on the equal emphasis on the Hand (physical/manual), Heart (compassion/political) and Head (learning /psycological /analytical).

As Pat Kane has recently pointed out: “Brian Boyd, one of the crafters of the original Curriculum for Excellence framework, spoke of Scottish education’s commitment in recent years to a Nordic-style “deep learning”, rather than the “surface learning of an exams-based approach”. This is what we need to cultivate and understand beyond a party-political squabble.

Upstart’s plea for play points us not just to a better experience for our youngest children but for all of us to shift away from ‘standardised futility’ towards deep learning and towards the Heart Hand and Head.

Of course “discovery, exploration and experimentation” should be at the heart of not just early learning but all of our learning. This would be obvious to us if we had not already been blinded by the sort of systems we see collapsing around us.





Comments (8)

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  1. Josef Ó Luain says:

    Ironical or what? That the school entry age was set at a low number to enable the bosses to take advantage of the labour of mothers and, today, how the various school holidays can be a child-care/financial headache for many working mothers. Such progress … I despair.

    1. Your quite right about the school entry age Josef.

  2. Dougie Blackwood says:

    There are a few threads to this. Should children start school later than at age 5 and should children be assessed when they start school.

    There is no doubt that children should join a nursery with organised activities as soon as is practical so that they can learn to interact with other children and by interacting improve many of the skills they will need through life. Whether this should change at age 5 to formal education is open to debate. By the age of 5 many children are ready to move on but not into a regimented classroom without any continuation of a large element of play.

    I remember my wonderful primary 1 teacher; we learned our letters and our numbers using games. One silly memory is learning about the letter T, we played at trains in a conga line round the classroom with the sound t,t,t etc. This is the necessary skill of a good infant mistress, engage the children and get some of the basic learning implanted so that children can move on slowly to the next stage.

    It was above my head at the time but I am sure that some assessments were made of the capabilities of the children at that time, whether they had been taught at home and whether they were bright and quick regardless of what prior learning they had. I am sure that, any decent school, this practice will have continued all through the years since I was there. This is necessary so that teaching can be tailored to the abilities of the pupils. Whether this is in sets within a class or in different classes it’s a fact of life that we are not all equal in learning capacity and intellect.

    There is a proposal that initial assessments are standardised in primary one. In my view this is regulating actions that are or should be happening now; it is not and should not be to stigmatise the less able but to ensure that our teachers are doing their job it is necessary to have a baseline from which to start. It is opposed by the teaching unions as some of their members are afraid they will be measured and opposed by opposition political parties purely for party political purposes.

    1. John Tracey says:

      Dougie, how correct you are about wonderful teachers. I had many wonderful teachers and as I reflect on times past in the classroom as a pupil, what made them wonderful was that they knew me, me as an individual. By knowing me they were able to tailor learning to my abilities. That is what teaching was and is about. I was constantly being assessed as an individual by my teachers so that learning could be tailored to my needs. I am so glad I wasn’t standardised!
      Judging teacher performance has always been important and has been going on in schools for as long as ? where Head Teachers knew their teaching staff as individuals – their strengths and their weaknesses – supporting them in doing their best.
      Your comment about baseline assessment being necessary to ensure teachers do their job makes it more important to not have pupils doing these assessments. If the assessments do not have a purpose totally related to the pupil they are invalid.
      Teachers being afraid of being measured? Sorry, but teachers have been measured and assessed for a long time as those involved in education know. If teachers fear anything, it is their precious time with pupils being wasted.
      As regards political parties and their actions, e.g. such assessments have long been advocated by Tories and yet here we see Tories opposing them for what seems like no other purpose than to do down the government. On the political point you make, I agree.

      The original article is well thought out and presented.

  3. florian albert says:

    If as John Swinney claims, all but three local authorities carry out assessments for Primary One pupils, the reaction to his policy comes across as a bit overblown.

    Also, teaching to the test is appropriate if the test properly reflects the curriculum it is intended to assess. (I doubt that Education Scotland – or whatever it calls itself these days – would be good at setting such tests. Their track record with CfE is dire.)

    If a learner driver were not taught the particular skills that the driving test states will be assessed, they would be entitled to feel cheated by their teacher.

    1. Jo says:

      I watched, with interest, the assessment material released yesterday so that we could see it for ourselves. All Scottish news programmes featured this last night. I have to say I saw nothing sinister, damaging or dangerous about the material or the idea behind it. Indeed, when broadcast demonstrating against this material in the same programme I felt those engaged in such demonstrations looked ridiculous, hysterical even.

      The other thing is that “play” isn’t being done away with and I’m really concerned about the blatant, well, lies really, being told about that in order to garner support against the Scottish Government. Play is catered for. It always was. It’s not being removed. It’s catered for in nurseries and pre-school groups which a significant number of Scottish children attend.

      So my conclusion about this whole thing, moreso after seeing those “sinister” examples last night for myself, is that the opposition to them is absolutely political. We knew that already about Larry Flanigan and the EIS he has used shamelessly as a political weapon for years against any government headed by an SNP First Minister. We knew Labour would do the same. And the biggest laugh is the Tory Party’s position which was to see an opportunity to win a vote and go as far as changing their own policy in order to do so! Now that is just embarrassing.

      1. Dougie Blackwood says:

        Spot on Jo.

        The whole stushie is based on political point scoring.

      2. Jim says:

        My youngest was blissfully unaware that she’d been recently assessed. The hype around this has been ridiculous.

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