On 1 January 2021, Scotland began a 'Year of Childhood', commissioned by the Scottish Government in celebration of the forthcoming incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Almost all nations on earth (the exception is the USA) have ratified the UNCRC, which – despite many misconceptions among the UK populace – is an eminently humane and reasonable document. But only a few, including Finland, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Belgium and Spain, have actually enshrined it in domestic law. Scotland will be the first UK country to do so.
Best place in the world to grow up?
The UK has a rather poor record in terms of children's happiness (we came bottom in UNICEF's 2007 survey of 'Child Well-Being in the Developed World' and haven't made much progress since), so UNCRC incorporation is a brave and aspirational move. But it will involve confronting many deep-seated cultural assumptions about children and childhood. In Scotland After the Virus
(Hassan & Barrow, 2020), Dr Suzanne Zeedyk catalogues some of the ways in which our country has failed in the past to recognise that children (despite their size and immaturity) are fully-fledged human beings, with the same social and emotional needs as adults.
• During the Second World War, the assumption that evacuees would not be adversely affected by separation from their family and home environment.
• In the early years of the NHS, limiting parental visits to hospitalised children to once a week on the grounds that more frequent contact would impede children in 'settling into the hospital routine'.
• The long-established assumption by wealthy parents that children benefit from being sent away from home to boarding school for long periods.
• Until the late 1980s, the widespread national agreement (shared by Scotland's major teaching union, the EIS) that 'belting' was essential to ensure discipline in our schools. (As a young teacher during the 1970s and 80s, I was appalled by the acceptance of the tawse as a disciplinary measure – even for spelling mistakes! – and remember many conversations with red-faced, elderly men who insisted that they had been belted regularly and 'it didn't do me any harm'.)
In recent years, Dr Zeedyk has been a leading light in Scotland's ACE-Aware Nation movement, helping to disseminate the mountain of scientific evidence that 'adverse childhood experiences' (including physical and emotional ill-treatment and neglect) have long-term effects on health and well-being.
The essential message of the ACE movement is that what happens to us during childhood impacts on our physical and mental health throughout our lives. There are strong correlations between childhood trauma and mental health problems, including difficulties in maintaining relationships, addictions of various sorts, heart disease and early death.
The adverse long-term potential of adverse childhood experiences is obviously exacerbated by poverty (as this ACE-Aware Nation
video makes very clear) but one has only to look at the personal histories of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson to see that wealth is not a protective factor. And that, when ACEs combine with a culturally-engendered sense of entitlement, they have the potential to cause considerable political, economic and social harm.
Play, pedagogy and policy-makers
So the onset of the Year of Childhood is a useful opportunity to reflect on some of Scotland's current implicit assumptions about the way we treat our children. In recent years, we've begun to recognise the errors of the past, by raising the age of criminal responsibility and banning physical punishment of children, but there is still a long way to go.
In a recently published book – Play is the Way: child development, early years and the future of Scottish education
– Dr Zeedyk identifies an area which merits serious consideration by policy-makers. She discusses why Upstart Scotland, which has led a five-year campaign for a Nordic-style kindergarten stage for Scottish children between the ages of three and seven, has so far had little success in political and educational circles.
There are 13 other chapters in Play is the Way
– by specialists from fields as diverse as public health, the play sector, social science, early years, primary and tertiary education, environmental sustainability, developmental psychology and parents' and children's rights – all of which present evidence suggesting that the relationship-centred, play-based kindergarten stage championed by Upstart Scotland would enhance the long-term well-being of Scotland's children and the nation as a whole.
The book was compiled because in February 2020 new practice guidance for early years was published by Education Scotland and the Scottish Government. Realising the Ambition: Being Me
is based on sound developmental science and play-based pedagogy and, in the opinion of the authors of Play is the Way
, has the potential to transform Scotland's approach to early childhood care and education in the ways envisaged by the Upstart Scotland campaign… but only if policy-makers at government and local authority level are prepared to reflect on the deep-seated cultural assumptions about education of the under-sevens which Dr Zeedyk describes.
At present, most policy-makers appear to share a long-established national attachment to the idea that formal schooling (in the form of instruction in the three Rs of reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic) should begin at the age of four or five. National standardised assessments in literacy and numeracy were introduced in 2018, starting in Primary 1, and despite a successful vote to scrap them in the Scottish Parliament, are still apparently regarded as vital elements in closing the attainment gap between rich and poor children. Play is the Way
argues that this is a false assumption and Scotland's 'early start' policy is, in fact, helping to drive the attainment gap.
As long as the P1 tests (and their associated 'benchmarks' for achievement) remain, it will be impossible for P1 teachers to fully implement the play-based pedagogical principles described in Realising the Ambitio
n. And as long as P1 children are identified as 'schoolchildren', it's highly unlikely that appropriate adult-child ratios and physical provision for self-directed play (as often as possible outdoors) will be considered essential elements of their care and education.
Play is the Way
has been selling like hot cakes to members of Scotland's early years sector. Indeed, Upstart supporters have even crowd-funded the purchase and delivery of copies of the book to all of Scotland's MSPs and local authority directors of education. Perhaps some of them will actually read it…
In the meantime, those of us who are concerned about the social and emotional damage caused by developmentally inappropriate early educational practices will continue to roll our eyes when government ministers declare they want to make Scotland the 'best place in the world to grow up'. We know that to be a hopeless aspiration unless they're prepared to recognise how our culture is still unintentionally damaging young children. Let's hope the Year of Childhood will be a national turning point.
Sue Palmer is a former primary head teacher and literacy specialist who, over the last 15 years, has written many books on child development. She is Chair of Upstart Scotland and editor of 'Play is the Way'