Growing up in Scotland: early experiences of primary school

This research report highlights the key findings from the Growing up in Scotland early experiences study.


Providing many with their first experience of more formal learning, as well as being a key source of care and support, primary schools are very important places in children's lives. A child's early experience of school can influence the route they take through the education system and their success within and beyond it. It is useful, therefore, to have a detailed understanding of that early experience and how it varies from child to child.

This report has presented descriptive analysis of the considerable data which GUS has collected on children's early experiences of primary school, providing a better understanding of the factors which lead to a positive early experience of school for children, the early engagement of parents with the school and the child's teacher, and the many practical issues associated with starting school such as school choice, transport, and wrap-around care. On the whole, the data show that for most children and their parents, early experiences - across a range of domains - are positive. However, for some children, particularly those in more disadvantaged social circumstances, the experience is less positive. This has important implications for their continuing educational career.

Entry and deferral

As expected, age was found to be a key explanation behind parents choosing to defer their child's entry to school. Almost half of the children born in January or February - those who would be youngest, under 5 years old at the point of starting school - were deferred compared with almost no children whose birthdays were between March and August - those who would be oldest, aged at least 5 years old. However, age was not the only explanation. Both the child's gender and their development (as perceived by the parent) were also factors; deferrals were higher amongst boys and amongst children whose parents had concerns about their development. In fact it is likely that these relationships are themselves linked, as parents of boys are significantly more likely to report developmental concerns than are parents of girls. These findings reflect previous research using GUS which showed that around the time of school entry, parents of boys were more likely to report difficulties with their child's social, emotional and behavioural development 21 than were parents of girls (Bradshaw and Tipping, 2010) as well as broader findings which show that boys are, on the whole, more likely to be reported with difficulties in health and development during the early years.

Perhaps surprisingly, there were no statistically significant differences in the likelihood of deferral by key parental socio-economic characteristics such as level of income or education. This finding therefore rejects any perception that more affluent parents are more likely to defer their children. However, the type of deferral did differ by parental characteristics. Discretionary referrals (those involving children born between September and December - thus not the very youngest) were more common amongst children in more disadvantaged circumstances. Although the dominant reasons related to age and perceptions of 'readiness' remain, when compared with automatic deferrals, discretionary deferrals were significantly more likely to be for health or developmental reasons. This pattern reflects other findings from GUS which demonstrate consistently poorer health and development - for example, in relation to social, emotional and behavioural development, or cognitive development - amongst more socio-economically disadvantaged children. Indeed, deferrals for children in lower income groups were more likely than for those in higher income groups to be related to health or developmental issues or based on advice received from the child's nursery.

School choice

Proximity is the most common reason given as the main factor influencing choice of school but the school's exam results and academic reputation also appeared to be important - even at this stage. This indicates a long-term interest amongst parents evidenced elsewhere in this report, particularly in relation to aspirations. The importance attached to the exam results/academic reputation was strongly and positively associated with parental social advantage across several indicators (area deprivation, NS- SEC, equivalised income and highest level of parental qualifications). Urban/rural classification had an expected role in the importance of proximity and 'no real choice' as factors for choosing a school.

Results in relation to placing requests were perhaps a little more unexpected. Parents living in more deprived areas and those from a 'non-white' background were more likely to make placing requests, suggesting lower satisfaction with local schools among these groups. The data on satisfaction support this explanation on one count - parents of 'non-white' backgrounds were less satisfied with the child's school than were 'white' parents but there were no such differences by area deprivation. This suggests that the placing requests amongst parents living in more deprived areas are made on some other basis. This trend perhaps goes against common perception that parents in more advantaged circumstances may be more likely to seek out the optimum educational placement for their child. However, such parents are more likely to consider the local school in decisions about where to live, or to be in a position where this consideration is possible. As such, they have less need to make a placing request. Good schools are known to drive up local housing costs which will likely lead to the exclusion of some more economically disadvantaged families from those areas and thus from those schools.

Advice of some sort on enrolment was sought across the spectrum of parental and area characteristics, and although there was some variation by these factors there were no clear patterns to this. There was some indication that those with higher levels of parental qualifications were more likely to use formal sources of advice, a relationship which has been found previously using GUS data in relation to child health and parenting.

Whilst the majority of children in Scotland start Primary 1 at a state school, the variation between these schools, and thus what children experience, in terms of pupil numbers at the whole school, primary stage and class level is substantial and heavily influenced by the area in which they live. For example, children living in less deprived areas are more likely to attend a larger school and experience larger class sizes than those in more deprived areas. The schools attended by children living in rural areas are smaller than those in urban areas with smaller classes sizes, but these children are more likely to experience P1 in a composite class alongside children at other primary stages.

Transition to school

Irrespective of social background, children who demonstrated average or above average cognitive ability and those with no social or behavioural difficulties were more likely to have an average or above average school readiness as perceived by their parents. Cognitive and social development are two aspects often used to define school readiness. Whilst the school readiness items used in GUS did not directly measure the child's ability or development in these domains, parents' perceptions of school readiness were closely linked to their understanding of the child's cognitive and social development. The connection between child development and perceived readiness may also explain why those children who were younger than 5 and older than 5 years 6 months (and thus had been deferred) at the point of entry were less likely to receive an average or above average readiness score.

The findings do suggest that pre-school attendance is beneficial, on the whole, in preparing children for school, at least as far as parents' perceptions are concerned. Children who attended fewer hours of pre-school were less likely to have an average or above average readiness score. However, the same logic does not hold for the other group who attended for longer hours and who were also more likely to be perceived as 'less ready'. This group may in fact have other particular characteristics - explaining the greater use of pre-school provision but not otherwise controlled for in the analysis - which may be driving this relationship.

A range of previous analysis in GUS has demonstrated strong links between a child's developmental status around the time they enter pre-school and at the point they start primary school. It appears that perceptions of readiness also follow this pattern - children who were perceived as less ready for pre-school were less likely to be perceived as being ready for school. This is perhaps unsurprising given the association between perceptions of readiness and measures of social development and cognitive ability. Other GUS research has shown that the children's social and cognitive development characteristics at age 3 - around the time they start pre-school - are closely related to the same measures at age 5, when they are about to, or have just started school. This provides further evidence of the importance of early experiences in influencing outcomes and of the ability to identify support needs ahead of primary school entry.

Parental involvement in school activities

Research has shown that parental involvement in children's education from an early age is associated with educational achievement. In addition, it has been found that the more intensely parents are involved, the more beneficial the achievement effects. Yet research has also demonstrated large differences between parents in their level of involvement in school activities.

The Scottish Government is committed to improving the involvement of parents in their children's education and in the work of schools themselves. The Scottish Schools (Parental Involvement) Act 2006 aims to help parents, carers and schools work together as partners in children's learning. It also places duties on schools, local authorities and the Scottish Government to make it easier for parents to become involved.

For parents with children in P1, involvement in school activities and events is generally high. Most parents reported having participated in at least one school activity or event, although participation in more formal activities such as attending a Parent Council or PTA meeting, or volunteering at the school, were much lower. In addition, there remain differences in the level of participation by various sub-groups of the population. For example lone parents, younger mothers, parents with lower educational qualifications, and parents from more deprived socio-economic circumstances had lower levels of participation. Once other factors were controlled for, measures of socio-economic disadvantage remained significant predictors of lower parental involvement. Thus, although it has been 4 years since the implementation of the Parental Involvement Act, it would appear that there is still a need to encourage and facilitate participation of those from more deprived backgrounds.

Information from and contact with the schools and teachers

Almost all parents reported receiving some information from the school on their child's progress or learning, though there were some differences in the extent to which different parents reported receiving different types of information. For example, parents in more advantaged circumstances were more likely than those in more disadvantaged circumstances to report having received information about their child's progress. Ninety-two per cent of parents in the highest income group said they had received such information compared with 77% of parents in the lowest income group. Similar patterns can also be seen according to area deprivation; those living in deprived area were less likely to receive progress information. This suggests that either the schools which children in more disadvantaged circumstances attend are less likely to provide this information in the first place, or that these parents are less likely to take note of such information when it is distributed, or indeed that it is less likely to reach them by whichever means it is sent.

Parents' evenings were widely attended by all parents, though there were some small differences, again with more disadvantaged parents being slightly less likely to have attended a parents' evening. Such events were unequivocally found to be useful however, by all parents who attended.

Ad-hoc meetings with teachers were less common - around half of parents reported speaking to their child's teacher outside of a parents evening. More variation existed in the extent to which this occurred. For example, degree-educated parents were more likely to have had such a meeting than parents' with lower or no qualifications. This may represent a greater level of interest in and concern about their child's education amongst more highly educated parents - the higher level of involvement in school activities amongst these parents has already been noted.

The characteristics of the school also influenced these meetings. Parent's whose children attended smaller schools were more likely to have spoken to their child's teacher outside of a parents' evening. This contact was also less likely to have been initiated by the parent or the school/teacher - suggesting it occurred on a more informal basis, perhaps in the playground at the end of the school day or at a school event. Such informal contact is likely to be easier when pupil numbers are lower and teachers can more easily build relationships with parents.

Contact with, and information from the school appears to be key in influencing parental satisfaction with the school. The multivariate analysis in Chapter 10 showed that, after controlling for parent and family background characteristics and area deprivation, those parents who had received less information from the school, who found communicating with teachers more difficult or who found their contact with teachers to be less useful were less likely to be 'very satisfied' with the child's school. Whilst satisfaction was generally high, it appears that improvements to channels of communication and openness between schools and parents may improve it.

Attendance and absence

Most children go to school most of the time, but, as may be expected, most also have some absence over the course of a school year. National administrative data on primary school attendance indicate that in 2010-11, 95% of all possible half days at school were attended (Scottish Government, 2011b), but GUS data suggest that 79% of children had been absent from school at least once in the previous 6 months. So whilst most children miss school at some point over the year, they tend to do so for only a short period of time.

The analysis here showed that a higher level of absence was associated with living in an area of higher deprivation, having a parent from a non-white ethnic background and having poorer adjustment to school. Children from more deprived areas also showed relatively high levels of unauthorised absense (including truancy) - 18% of children living in the 15% most deprived datazones recorded 5 or more days of unauthorised absence during their P1 year, more than double the equivalent figure of 7% for children in the remaining 85% of areas. Figures for lateness follow a similar trend. As noted earlier, existing research suggests that a child's early school experience influences their continuing educational career. This early tendency for unauthorised absence and lateness may therefore lead to the establishment of a continuing pattern for these children, leading to a poorer school experience and poorer school outcomes overall.

Additional support needs

Whether a child has Additional Support Needs ( ASN) or not can strongly influence their experiences of school, and as such it is important to identify and provide for those who may need additional support.

8% of children at Primary 1 are reported as having ASN by their main carer. Boys (10%) are more likely to have ASN than are girls (4%) reflecting the known developmental differences between the two sexes reported earlier. ASN is also higher amongst children living in the two most deprived SIMD quintiles, again reflecting patterns in child health and development already reported in GUS data.

The most common ASN reported were speech and language problems (46%), followed by social and/or behavioural problems (23%) and learning disabilities (17%). Nearly one in three (31%) children who had any ASN were reported to have more than one type of need.

Practical arrangements

It is encouraging that around half of all children in P1 and P2 walk to and from school. However, almost all of the remainder make the journey by car - 38% travel to school by car and 33% return home by car. Whilst children living in less deprived areas are more likely than those in more deprived areas to make the journey by car, this is largely explained by greater car ownership amongst families in the former group. When only families with a car are considered, the proportion making the journey by car is more similar across families in all areas. It seems therefore that there is still a significant opportunity to improve 'active travel' on the journey to school.

Only a minority of children attend breakfast or after-school clubs, the latter being more widely attended than the former. Whilst both provide a source of before and after-school care for parents, they each have a slightly different focus. The provision of a free or subsidised breakfast in a school or community-based setting is core to the breakfast club and they have featured as key elements in programmes aimed at improving children's healthy eating. After-school clubs are more geared towards the provision of care for children following the end of the school day until they are able to be collected by parents who may be in employment, education or training.

Given their different focus, it is perhaps unsurprising that patterns of use vary amongst different parents. Use of breakfast clubs was slightly more common in households with no parent employed and in lone parent households suggesting greater use amongst children in more disadvantaged circumstances - though there were no differences in use by household income or parental education level suggesting that the distinction is not simply one of disadvantage. Thus, some further analysis of the circumstances and characteristics of children who use these clubs would be worthwhile if there are plans to broaden their reach.

Children in households where parents had higher levels of education and higher incomes were more likely to attend after-school clubs than those in household where parents had lower qualifications or incomes. These patterns may reflect two issues: parental employment patterns amongst higher income and higher educated households which require the use of after-school care, and the cost of after-school clubs. The analysis showed that use of after-school clubs was not significantly different amongst households where parents worked full-time, part-time or were not working. However, because after-school clubs attract a cost, it may be that only those families where parents work and are higher earners can afford to use them. Further analysis, including of the more detailed childcare data collected on GUS, is necessary to explore and explain these patterns in more detail.

Satisfaction with the school

Understanding the factors that drive parental satisfaction with schools enables causes of dissatisfaction to be addressed and/or high levels of satisfaction to be maintained. The analysis of this data provided very positive results: 97% of parents were 'very' or 'fairly' satisfied with the school (71% 'very' and 27% 'fairly').

There were few notable variations in levels of satisfaction according to parental background or area characteristics. The few that were initially observed did not remain significant in the multivariate analysis. Instead, as noted above, school related factors appeared to be more important in influencing parents' satisfaction with the school. For example, parents who had not received information from the school on how to help the child's learning were less likely than those that had to say they were 'very satisfied', and those who felt it was or would be less easy to approach teachers were less likely than those who thought it was 'very easy' to say they were 'very satisfied'.

Parental aspirations and attitudes to schooling

Parents' aspirations for their children were high - almost all would like their child to attend college or university. This pattern applied across all key sub-groups, though there were some small variations - for example, parents who were themselves degree-educated, were more likely to want their child to go to college or university (91%) than were those with no qualifications (84%). This may reflect both a wider perception of increased access to further and higher education for children from all backgrounds, but also an understanding amongst all parents that academic or vocational study beyond school will be necessary for their children when they get to that stage.

Parents had a range of broader wishes for what they would like their child to have done by the time he or she had reached early adulthood. Most parents said they would like their child to be in full-time employment but a majority of parents were also hoping their child would have gone travelling before their mid-twenties. Housing costs and difficulties for first-time buyers as well as the expense now associated with further study have perhaps lead most parents to expect their child will still be at home in their mid-twenties - a perception which the current economic situation is also likely to affect.

In terms of differences in aspirations amongst different parents, of particular note are those differences observed by the child's gender. There were some results which suggest that some parents view particular roles for males and females in adult life. For example, parents of girls were slightly more likely to want their child to attend college/university than parents of boys. This may reflect the generally better developmental position which girls have assumed at this early age in terms of their health, cognitive ability and social development. As a result, parents of girls may believe their child has greater academic potential. In contrast, parents of boys were more likely to want their child to have a full-time job compared with parents of girls. Thus girls may be less likely to be seen as being in full-time employment perhaps because they are perceived more likely to be pursuing further or higher education. However, this second finding may also indicate the notion amongst some parents that males will be working full-time because they are more likely to assume the 'breadwinner' role.


Back to top