I met the journalist and broadcaster, Lesley Riddoch, at a public talk she gave last week about nursery education in Scotland. Dry? Not a bit of it! Using the Norwegian nature nursery model as an example of best practice she laid out clearly and depressingly how we are failing our 0 – 3 year olds. Here’s her article for the Scotsman newspaper: my response to the paper is below.
Scottish children record the lowest feelings of wellbeing in Europe. © Lesley Riddoch, 2009.
Never mind literacy, class size or the Curriculum for Excellence – we have bigger problems. Some of our children are doing fine – others are obese and disengaged. Some – in hopeless, drug-filled estates – are semi-feral. Others in leafy suburbs are over-parented. There is one common denominator though – guilty working mothers who dare not demand the massive change that would remedy educational problems and improve adult and child wellbeing — kindergarten care on the Scandinavian model from the age of 1.
I can hear the objections already. Too expensive. Alright for them. A luxurious irrelevance when essential school services are being cut. Destruction of the “mother-at-home” parenting that has worked well for generations.
Let me ask one thing straight away.
How much money and effort do we currently waste “retrofitting” skills onto the teenage and adult casualties of poor childhood learning experience? And how much might we have saved in cash, confidence, and citizen engagement if we had spent on the early years instead?
So back to our cousins in well-adjusted Scandinavia.
In Norway every child has a statutory right to a kindergarten place from 1-6 for an eye-watering maximum of £200 per month.
Children spend the bulk of the day outdoors – often in snow and temperatures of minus 5 degrees – fully equipped by the school in snazzy, thermal, waterproof, gear. The kindergartens are often situated near farms so the kids can feed and play with animals, collecting eggs and washing them for sale, growing tomatoes, making hay and even watching slaughtered cows being dissected to learn more about animal biology. The Norwegian belief is that children divorced from the whole of nature – the cycles of life and death — become couch potatoes, estranged from the outdoors and less independent, confident, co-operative and happy as young adults.
An activity centre in Arctic Bodo is part of every local pupil’s week – especially children with autism, learning difficulties, hyperactivity and truanting tendencies. They drive on quad bikes, abseil on cliffs, climb trees, drive go-karts and eat and learn outside around sheltered camp fires. As educational pioneer Henny Aune puts it, “Children have more physical energy than adults and children with attention issues have more energy still. They just need to run it off. Then they can focus.”
This approach is not only humane and sensible it gets results. The sort employers actually want.
Scottish employers placed the following skills top in a 2004 Future Skills survey – planning and organisation, customer handling, problem solving, team working and oral communication. Literacy and numeracy were right at the bottom of the priority list.
At what age are these missing “soft” skills learned? 0-3. At what age does Scotland spend least education money? 0-3. At what age did Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman discover the maximum “bang for educational bucks”? Age 3. How are soft skills most easily acquired at the age of 3 – through engaged play in extended families or in kindergartens.
And what are we doing?
Keeping kids in splendid and solitary isolation at home or sending a few to under-funded nurseries before the school gates finally swing open and mothers finally get free, full-time, day care for their children while they work.
In turning our back on excellent kindergarten provision for all we are creating a remedial society — storing up difficulty, wasting money and judging harshly those who “fail.”
So what does this mean for the current rammy over class size versus teaching skill?
Finland is the current European gold-standard whose experience appears to confirm the primacy of excellent teaching. All teachers there (even primary) must reach advanced Masters degree standard (5-6 years study with all tuition fees paid.) But there’s more to it than that.
Like Norway, primary school in Finland is in no way glorified childcare – that’s already been done at kindergarten. So Finnish kids hit the ground running aged 7 and almost 100% can read by their first Christmas in school. They learn only Finnish (a notoriously difficult language) for the first few years, then add a foreign language every couple of years (supplementing learning when they watch TV with English subtitles). All kids learn together without many external tests until the age of 16, when the child’s grades determine whether they attend a college preparatory school or a vocational school for their final two years in school. Only 6% leave education completely at this point.
The councils or municipalities run schools, and can vary the curriculum. 40% of school systems have fewer than 50 students, and 60% have fewer than 6 teachers. Only 3% of schools have more than 600 students. This intimate school setting is seen as an important element of Finland’s educational success: students who are weaker academically can flourish better in comfortable, familiar spaces than in larger, anonymous institutions. Average class size is 19.5 students – above that a classroom assistant is drafted in to help.
So the remedy for Scotland is not wither or. Excellent teaching and small classes plus dark nights causing a reading tradition plus soft skill development through outdoor learning at kindergarten plus support not exclusion for slower children plus a “no-one is left behind” outlook plus no profit-making schools plus a homogenous, equal society that spends four times more on 0-3 — all these factors contribute to Nordic success.
The result is equal happy, skilful adults living in a non-remedial society.
This large policy shift cannot be plucked from the shelf.
Health, education, drink, confidence, business creation, poverty — Scotland has driven into so many social policy cul-de-sacs that the sound of policy vehicles beeping in reverse will be heard for decades.
How can we tell our political masters and civil servants we support ambitious change? That just doing better than England isn’t good enough, when the whole of the UK is producing unhappy, cooped-up kids. And when will the silent force of UK politics – women – stand up for the mental and physical health of their children and future generations of adults and demand universal, affordable, outdoor Scandinavian-style kindergarten care?
Re: “Scottish Children record the lowest feelings of wellbeing in Europe”