Scotland

Should Scottish children start school at the age of 6?

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Scottish councils have sparked a debate with parents, politicians and education leaders by suggesting children could start school at the age of six. Here BBC Scotland's education correspondent Jamie McIvor looks at the radical idea.

It is an example of what is known in political circles as "blue-sky thinking". The idea that no idea should be ruled out for being too radical.

The challenge, of course, is to maintain and improve the education system at a time when budgets are under growing pressure.

Scotland's 32 councils run schools. Overall education budgets are not ring-fenced. As the need to find fresh savings becomes harder, education budgets are under scrutiny in a way that has not been seen in recent years.

One council is considering cutting the amount of time some primary school children spend with a teacher. Another is contemplating doing away with its unusually small English and Maths classes in the early years of secondary school.

Difficult process

School closures are always a difficult process and cannot be driven by financial considerations alone. Teachers' pay is set nationally and there is no suggestion of making them redundant - teacher numbers can only fall as people leave naturally and, up until now, councils have maintained the ratio of staff to pupils.

So with limited scope, to use another piece of jargon, "thinking outside the box" is inevitable.

There are conflicting views from other countries about whether children benefit from starting school later. In many European countries children start school at six.

As curriculum for excellence looks at education from 3 to 18, the suggestion is likely to be that children have an extra year of nursery education but a year less in a primary school.

But the moment the debate shifts from whether a move would benefit a child to whether something is an acceptable way of saving money, the terms of the debate inevitably change.

Government support

The first council to seriously examine the possibility of raising the school starting age and reducing the number of years a youngster spends at primary school can expect to come under intense scrutiny.

A move as radical as this could never happen without Scottish government support. The education secretary Mike Russell wants to maintain the pupil to teacher ratio and does not want rural schools closed on financial grounds. So, jargon time again, time to think the unthinkable.

Any debate, though, would have to be centred on whether changing the balance between nursery and primary education helped children. Seen as a financial cut, the public reaction would probably scare any politician.

Education cuts are likely to prove more contentious than any of the other cuts debated during the recent years of austerity as rows over school closures illustrate.

It would be a brave council which would be the first in Scotland to propose starting primary school later; pilot schemes involving individual schools could naturally worry parents who would be concerned their youngsters were guinea pigs and a move as radical as this is unlikely to happen nationally without very careful evaluation and public debate.

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