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.


This report presents the results of largely descriptive analysis of the considerable data which GUS has collected on children's early experiences of primary school from both the birth and child cohorts between 2007 (sweep 3) and 2011 (sweep 6). This analysis seeks to provide 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.

The aim of the report is to provide an overview of these issues and experiences exploring how they vary according to characteristics of the child, family, area ( e.g. area deprivation), and the school ( e.g. size). Both interview data and administrative data drawn from school records has been analysed.

The main findings are presented below by chapter.

Entry to school

In Scotland, the school year starts mid-August and any single school year group consists of children born between the beginning of March in one year and the end of February the following year. This means children usually start school between the ages of 4.5 and 5.5 years old. Indeed, data in this chapter show this to be the case for most GUS children.

However, parents of children born between September and February can request to defer their child's entry to the following August. As the following data demonstrate, age at entry is the key driver of parental decisions to defer, but other factors are also influential.

  • At school entry, 42% of children were under 5, 49% were aged between 5.0 and 5.5 years, and 9% were older than 5.5 years.
  • 87% of children started school in the August when they were first eligible and 13% had their entry deferred.
  • Almost half of the children born in January or February were deferred compared with almost no children whose birthdays were between March and August. 15% of boys had their entry deferred compared with 9% of girls.
  • There were no significant differences in deferral by key parental socio-economic characteristics.
  • Parental concerns about the child's development were, however, associated with deferred entry. Amongst parents who reported some concerns about their child's development at age 5, 21% of parents deferred entry compared with 10% of those who reported no concerns.
  • The most common reasons parents actually gave for deferring entry were that the parent(s) felt the child was 'not ready' (44%) or that he or she was too young (32%). 8% said they deferred for health or developmental reasons and 5% said they had followed advice from the child's nursery or health visitor.
  • For deferrals related to the birth cohort, 53% were automatic (involving children born in January or February) and 47% were discretionary (involving children born between September and December).
  • When compared with automatic deferrals, discretionary deferrals were significantly more likely to be for health or developmental reasons. 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, school characteristics and moving schools

This chapter considers survey data around the factors that parents considered important when deciding which primary school the cohort child should attend, the proportion and characteristics of parents who made placing requests for a non-designated school and sources of information and advice on enrolment. In addition, administrative data was used to examine key characteristics of the schools attended by children in Scotland in their first primary year.

School choice

  • Proximity is the most common reason given as the main factor influencing choice of school: 34% of parents cited this reason.
  • The importance attached to the school's exam results/academic reputation has a strongly positive relationship to parental social advantage across several indicators (area deprivation, socio-economic classification, equivalised income and highest level of parental qualification).

Placing requests

  • 32% of parents made a placing request whilst the remainder (67%) accepted their allocated place at their local school. Only 1% of parents making a placing request were unsuccessful.
  • Placing requests were more common amongst families in more disadvantaged circumstances.

Information and advice about enrolment

  • 61% of parents sought advice on enrolment ahead of their child starting school; pre-school and primary school staff were the most commonly cited sources of advice. Satisfaction with the advice was very high, with 95% of parents saying they were quite or very satisfied.

School characteristics

  • 19% of children were attending a faith school and 4% of children attended a school where some form of Gaelic Medium Education was being provided.
  • Most children in Primary 1 (66%) attend schools with 200 or more pupils on the roll. Just 8% attend a school with less than 100 pupils.
  • Children living in areas in the least deprived quintile and those living in areas classified as 'large urban' were more likely to attend larger schools than those living in all other area types.
  • The average P1 intake was 39 pupils and the average P1 class included 19 pupils.
  • Children living in less deprived areas are more likely than those living in areas with higher deprivation, to attend schools with larger Primary 1 intakes and larger Primary 1 class sizes.

The transition to school

This chapter explores a range of issues related to the child's transition from pre-school to primary school. Four key concepts are examined: parental perceptions of the child's 'readiness' for school; the child's adjustment to school in the first few months; how well they have coped with the change in learning style and environment; and activities initiated by the school and/or undertaken by the parent and/or the child in preparation for going to school.

Perceptions of the child's readiness for school

  • The vast majority of children were perceived by their parents to be ready for school. Children in more socio-economically disadvantaged circumstances tended to have lower perceived readiness than those in more advantaged circumstances, though differences were small.
  • After controlling for socio-economic characteristics, the key factors associated with perceived school readiness were the child's pre-school experience (time spent at pre-school), and their cognitive and social, emotional and behavioural development around the time they started school.

Activities in preparation for school

  • Virtually all parents (99%) reported having done at least one activity associated with the child's transition to school. 92% had talked to their child about school, 90% had visited the school before the child started, 87% had sought or received advice and 86% had practiced reading, writing and/or numbers.
  • Most parents (61%) had done eight or more different activities, 31% had done between four and seven, and just 8% reported three or less.
  • Parents in higher income households and those with higher levels of education reported a greater average number of activities.

Adjustment to school

  • 92% of parents believed that their child had adjusted easily to school. Though 22% felt that their child was happier with the way he or she learned things in pre-school.
  • Children with lower perceived adjustment were more likely to also have poorer social, emotional and behavioural development and cognitive ability.

Managing the learning transition

  • The vast majority of parents (87%) thought the pace of learning at school was just right for their child, though 10% said it was too slow and 3% that it was too fast.
  • Most children (90%) were reported as either finding some parts of school work hard (41%) or never finding school work hard (49%).
  • Reports on the extent to which the child had coped with the learning transition varied, in particular, according to differences in their social and cognitive development.

Parental involvement in school activities

Research has shown that where parents are more involved with their children's education and learning, their children have more positive school experiences and do better than those children who are less involved. Parental involvement incorporates a broad range of activities including helping with homework, talking to teachers, attending school functions, and taking part in school governance. GUS data show that most parents are actively involved in school activities, but also that parents in more disadvantaged circumstances report lower levels of involvement.

Involvement in school activities

  • 5% of parents had not participated in any activities or events at the child's school since the child started Primary 1.
  • The most common activity for parents to be involved in was visiting their child's classroom, with 86% of parents reporting they had done this.
  • 49% of parents participated in two or three activities or events at the child's school, while 29% attended three or four activities or events.
  • Couple families and older mothers were more likely to have higher involvement than lone parents and younger mothers. Parents living in less deprived areas, those in higher occupational classes, in higher income groups, and with higher educational qualifications tended to report higher levels of involvement.
  • Households where the respondent (usually the mother) worked part-time reported slightly higher involvement than those where the respondent worked full-time or was not working.


  • 71% of Primary 1 pupils receive homework every or most days and virtually all parents (93%) said that their child always completed it.
  • Almost all (95%) parents helped their child with their homework and 85% of parents said that it was easy to get their child to do their homework. The most common reason parents gave for finding it difficult to get the child to complete his or her homework, was that the child was not interested.
  • Nine out of ten parents were confident helping their child with all subjects though confidence levels varied according to a number of demographic factors.

Information from and contact with teachers and the school

Schools have a key role to play in supporting parental involvement by communicating effectively with parents and seeking, encouraging and ensuring their involvement in their child's school experience and the broader life of the school. This chapter considers some of the data GUS has collected around school-parent communication including data on how and what information parents receive from their child's school and their contact with teachers at the school.

Information from the school

  • The vast majority of parents had received information from the school about their child's progress or learning. Around three-quarters of parents had received a school report.
  • Parents in more advantaged circumstances were more likely than those in more disadvantaged circumstances to report having received information about their child's progress.

Parents' evenings

  • 94% of parents reported that they had attended a parents' evening since their child had started P1. Those from more disadvantaged circumstances were slightly less likely to have attended than those from more advantaged circumstances.
  • Most parents found parents' evening very useful (60%) or quite useful (36%) with no significant variations by parental characteristics.

Other contact with teachers

  • Almost half (48%) of parents indicated that they had talked to their child's teacher outside of a parents' evening. The contact was more likely to have been initiated by the child's parents than by the school, though in around one-third of cases (32%) neither party had initiated the meeting suggesting that it occurred on a more informal basis.
  • Degree-educated parents were more likely to have had such contact than parents with lower or no qualifications. It was also more common for parents whose child attended a smaller school and for parents with some concerns about their child's development or adjustment to school.
  • Amongst those who had not had such contact, the majority said they would find it either very (76%) or quite easy (22%) to approach their child's teacher.

Advice on helping the child at home

  • 65% of parents reported that they had received information/advice on how to help their child with learning at home (excluding doing homework). 73% of parents in the highest income group reported receiving this advice compared with 58% in the lowest income group.

Attendance and absence

This chapter uses both survey and administrative data to examine levels of absence amongst children in Primaries 1 and 2, the main reasons for it and whether it varies according to certain child and family characteristics. School attendance levels are of importance as they are strongly linked to attainment levels and likelihood of further education, even when measured at primary school.

  • 71% of pupils had full attendance over the previous month but only 21% had full attendance over the previous 6 months.
  • 20% of pupils reported between ½-2 days absence in the previous month.
  • Deprivation status, ethnicity and adjustment to school all affected attendance levels.
  • Child illness was the main reason for absence over both the previous month and previous 6 months, the next most common reason was a medical appointment.
  • Child health, as reported by the parent, affected how many days a child was absent due to sickness.
  • Deprivation status also affected unauthorised absence (in particular, truancy) and lateness.

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. This chapter considers the prevalence of additional support needs, the types of ASN reported, support received and analysis of how other aspects of learning are affected by ASN.

  • 8% of children at Primary 1 are reported as having ASN by their main carer.
  • This figure is higher for boys (10%) than it is for girls (4%) and is also higher amongst children living in the most deprived two quintiles of the Scottish Index for Multiple Deprivation.
  • Nearly half of those with ASN (46%) were reported to have speech and language problems, just under a quarter (23%) reported social and/or behavioural problems and just under one-fifth (17%) reported learning disabilities.
  • Nearly one in three (31%) who reported having ASN have more than one type of need.
  • The most common form of support received was from the teacher who helped more than half of all those with ASN.

Practical arrangements

For most families, having a child start school requires the consideration of a series of practical and logistical arrangements - getting the child to and from school, ensuring they have lunch, and making provision for before and after school care if necessary. In this chapter, we consider some of the data collected on GUS on each of these aspects of the child's early experience at school.

Lunch at school

  • Most children (53%) in Primary 1 and 2 take a packed lunch to school with slightly fewer (43%) choosing a school meal.
  • Children from more disadvantaged circumstances were more likely to have school meals and less likely to have packed lunches than those in more advantaged circumstances.

Travel to and from school

  • Around half of all children walk to and from school, 38% make the journey to school by car and around one-third (33%) return home by car.
  • Amongst those families who own cars, children living in the least deprived areas are just as likely to be taken to school by car as those living in the most deprived areas.
  • Children in rural areas were less likely to walk to school and more likely to take a school bus than children in other areas.

Breakfast clubs and after-school clubs

  • 8% of children attended a breakfast club and 16% attended an after-school club.
  • Most children who attended an after-school club (57%) did so on only one or 2 days each week. In contrast, almost three-quarters (71%) of children who used breakfast clubs attended on 3 of the 5 days including 38% who attended every day.
  • The most common reason given for use of either club was 'for childcare'.
  • Children in lone parent families were more likely than those from couple families to attend breakfast clubs.
  • Children in households where parents had higher levels of education and higher incomes were more likely to attend after-school clubs than those in households where parents had lower qualifications or incomes.

Satisfaction with 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. This chapter examines reported levels of satisfaction, with the child's school and variations in satisfaction levels by themes explored in earlier chapters, including contact with the school and level of involvement.

  • Overall, parental satisfaction with the child's school is very high: 97% of parents responded that they were 'very' or 'fairly' satisfied with the school (71% 'very' and 27% 'fairly').
  • 'School-related factors' are generally associated with satisfaction in the expected way: for example greater parental involvement in school activities, receipt of information from the school about the child's learning, and approachability of teachers were all associated with higher reported satisfaction.
  • Relationships between parental and area characteristics and levels of satisfaction were more mixed, though some did emerge. For example, parents of 'non-white' background were less likely than 'white' parents to say that they were very satisfied with the school (62% and 71% respectively).
  • When the analyses controlled for other factors, most associations between parental and area characteristics and school satisfaction were not significant.
  • School-related factors appeared to be more important with several being independently associated with parents' satisfaction, again mostly in the expected direction. 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

This chapter explores the data collected in GUS on the educational and life aspirations that parents held for the cohort child and how these vary according to key parent, child and family characteristics. Some consideration is also given to parents' attitudes to certain aspects of schooling. These sorts of aspirations amongst parents and their attitudes to schooling and education can influence a child's educational achievement.

Education and life aspirations

  • 88% of parents would like their child to attend college/university.
  • Parents who were themselves degree-educated, were more likely to want their child to go to university (91%) than were those with no qualifications (84%).
  • Parents of girls were slightly more likely to want their child to attend college/university than parents of boys (91% compared to 86%).
  • Compared with those whose children had no additional support needs (4%), parents of children with additional needs (7%) were more likely not to mind how far their child goes in education.
  • The most prevalent life aspiration amongst parents, was that they would like their child to be in full-time employment by their mid-twenties (82% of parents would like this).
  • Parents of boys were more likely to want their child to have a full-time job compared to parent of girls (85% versus 80%).
  • There was also support amongst parents for their child to have gone travelling (64%) and to have left home (41%).

Attitudes to schooling

  • Fifty-five per cent of respondents thought that learning about other subjects and life skills is just as important as learning basic skills such as reading, writing and maths, whilst 28% thought that learning basic skills is more important than anything else.
  • 77% of parents agreed and 9% disagreed with the statement: "I would not mind if my child went to school where half the children were of another religion". Disagreement was higher, in particular, amongst parents who were Roman Catholics (16%).


Scotland has witnessed significant review, discussion, debate and development of its school education system over the last 10 years. This period of change was initiated by The National Debate on Education in 2002 and has continued through to the introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence into schools in August 2010, with developments continuing still.

On the whole, the findings in this report show that, for most children and their parents, early school 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 and for school and education policy.

Parents have had a statutory right to exercise choice in their child's schooling since the Education (Scotland) Act 1980. Proximity was key to choice of school, indicating a general satisfaction or acceptance of the local school. However, with parents living in more deprived areas more likely to make placing requests, there is a suggestion of lower satisfaction with local schools amongst these groups and thus an opportunity for improvement.

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. With perceptions of pre-school readiness shown to be associated with perceptions of school readiness, there is further evidence of the importance of early experiences in influencing outcomes and of the ability to identify support needs ahead of primary school entry.

The Scottish Government is committed to improving the involvement of parents in their children's education and in the work of schools themselves. For parents with children in P1, involvement in school activities and events is generally high. However, once other factors were controlled for, measures of socio-economic disadvantage remained significant predictors of lower parental involvement. Thus, it would appear that there is still a need to encourage and facilitate participation of those from more deprived backgrounds.

Satisfaction with the child's school was also generally high. However, poorer perceptions of information from and communication with the school were key factors associated with lower satisfaction. Improvements to channels of communication and openness between schools and parents - already a key aim of Curriculum for Excellence - may therefore raise satisfaction levels.

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 meaning there is still a significant opportunity to improve 'active travel' on the journey to school.


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