Children's development at the start of school in Scotland and the progress made during their first school year: An analysis of PIPS baseline and follow-up assessment data

This report shows the results of analysis on the starting points and progress of children in Scotland in Primary 1 in early maths, early literacy and non-cognitive development and behaviour.

1. Executive summary

1.1 Background to the report

There is wide recognition that children's development and experience in their early years, and progress during the first year of school, are crucial for success in later life. It is important to assess children during this early period to monitor their development so that educational provision can be tailored to their needs. This report describes a secondary analysis of existing data from the Performance Indicators in Primary Schools (PIPS) On-entry Baseline and Follow-up assessment, which is widely used by schools in Scotland for such formative purposes. This secondary data analysis offers a perspective for policy-makers by providing a picture of children's development when they start school in Scotland and progress during their first year at school. Trends over time and a comparison of the development of children starting school in Scotland and England are also reported.

1.2 The PIPS On-entry Baseline and Follow-up Assessment

The PIPS On-entry Baseline and Follow-up assessment is a measure of children's developing abilities at the start of school and their progress during their first school year. It assesses cognitive development (vocabulary acquisition, phonological awareness, early reading, and early mathematics) and personal and social development. The assessment of cognitive development takes place at the start of Primary 1 by a teacher working through a series of questions with each child on a one-to-one basis. Teachers rate each child's personal and social development on the basis of their observations collected over the first few weeks of the school year. Both assessments are repeated at the end of Primary 1.

1.3 Sample

Data were analysed from three academic years: 2012/13, 2013/14 and 2014/15. Nationally representative samples of pupils were drawn from the full datasets for each school year. The sample for each year included around 6,500 children. The average age of children at the start of school was five years although a high proportion of older children was noted, reflecting the practice of some parents to defer the entry of their child for one year if they were the youngest in the cohort.

1.4 Key findings from the analysis

1.4.1 Start of Primary 1

At the start of Primary 1, children were typically able to point to objects such as a microscope, jewellery and a saxophone from picture scenes. They could identify several letters and single digits, and answer early mathematics questions such as 'here are six ice creams, if I took three away, how many would be left?'.

The analysis found a general trend for older children achieving higher scores than younger ones although the correlations between age and development were weak. The sample included a small proportion of older children whose entry to school had been deferred by a year. Analysis revealed that these children were likely to have had delayed development and this may have contributed to decisions to defer entry to school for a year. They had, on average, lower scores on the assessment of cognitive development than would be expected for their age. They also had lower ratings of personal and social development.

Girls were ahead of boys in their vocabulary acquisition, phonological awareness and early reading by up to the equivalent of five months of development. Their early mathematics scores were not significantly different from those of the boys. The boys' spread of scores was wider than the girls' for all areas, meaning that proportionately there were more boys with very high and very low scores.

Children from the least deprived areas had higher scores than those from the most deprived areas by around 14 months of development, although the most able quarter of the most deprived group were ahead of the least able quarter of the most affluent group. No evidence was found to indicate that the gender difference was related to deprivation.

The strongest areas of personal and social development for all children were adjustment to the school setting, independence, relationships with peers, the awareness of the need to follow rules and communication. Their cultural awareness was relatively weaker at this stage. Girls' scores were significantly higher than boys' with the greatest differences being in concentration and actions. The scores of children from the least deprived areas were significantly higher than those of children from the most deprived areas on several of the scales, with the largest differences being seen in their adjustment to the school setting, concentration on teacher-directed activities and cultural awareness.

Children in Scotland had higher scores across early reading, early mathematics as well as personal and social development at the start of school compared with England. This is partially explained, but not fully, by maturation, since they start school, on average, six months older than their English peers. An interesting difference was seen for early reading, with the distribution of scores for Scottish children having less of a spread compared with England; there was a smaller difference between children with very high and very low scores in Scotland compared with England. It appeared that children in Scotland were beginning to learn to read in a way that reflected systematic teaching. For example, they were typically able to identify many more letters at the start of school than children in England, and this may be a reflection of the focus of pre-school provision.

Over the three year period between 2012/13 and 2014/15, children's development at the start of school was quite stable although there was a gradual slight decline in their scores. This corresponded to a slight change in demographics with an increasing number of young children in Primary 1 for whom English was an additional language, which may have been a contributory factor. Children's personal and social development remained stable over time.

1.4.2 Progress to the End of Primary 1

An educationally significant and impressive amount of progress was made during Primary 1. By the end of the year, children were typically able to decode several high-frequency words and understand their meaning, and in mathematics they could perform calculations and solve a variety of problems. The gains were also statistically significant. When plotted on the same scale, the children who were on the 50th percentile[1] at the start of the year moved to the 95th percentile by the end of Primary 1. They made many more months of progress in school than would be expected from natural maturation. From the rate of progress[2] seen in Primary 1, it is estimated that if children did not go to school, it would take them more than four years before they were able to read at the same level, and three years to perform at the same level in mathematics starting from the point where they would have entered school. School really does make a difference.

Although statistically significant differences in progress were seen between boys and girls for early reading and early mathematics, these were very small. Girls made more progress than boys in early reading but the reverse held for early mathematics.

Children from the least deprived areas made more progress than those in the most deprived areas for early reading and picture vocabulary where, perhaps, they were receiving more enriched support in their homes. But for early mathematics, the children in the most deprived areas made more progress and caught up a little with their more affluent peers.

Progress varied from school to school by a substantial amount: 12 months of improvement in reading and 14 months for mathematics.

Progress during the year was seen for all areas of personal and social development, and particularly large gains were seen in children's cultural awareness.

Over the three year period between 2012/13 and 2014/15, the end of year scores dropped slightly but generally not as much as the scores at the start of Primary 1. This was because children were actually making more progress in Primary 1 in later years; this was most noticeable in mathematics.

Children's progress in personal, social and emotional development over the course of Primary 1 remained stable across the three years which were analysed.

1.5 Conclusions

This secondary analysis of existing data from the Performance Indicators in Primary Schools (PIPS) On-entry Baseline and Follow-up assessment shows the substantial educational and statistically significant progress made by children in Scotland during their first year of school. The weak links to deprivation, age and gender suggest that these factors are not deterministic in the progress made during Primary 1. Schools made a major difference and the amount of progress which pupils make in different schools varies by around twelve months. Children from the most deprived backgrounds made relatively less progress in early reading than those from the most affluent backgrounds and they made more progress in early mathematics.

Children's cognitive, personal and social development was at a higher level than their English peers at the start of school. They were on average six months older but this did not explain all of the advantage. It may be a reflection of different values and culture in the home environment and the focus of pre-school provision in Scotland.


Email: Wendy van der Neut

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