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.


1.1 Background

A successful school experience is crucial for the achievement of positive child outcomes. The Growing Up in Scotland ( GUS) study provides a unique opportunity to present a detailed exploration of the experiences of children and their families around the time they move to primary school and during their first school year.

This report presents the results of largely descriptive analysis of the considerable data which GUS has collected around this topic 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 ( e.g. age at entry, gender), family ( e.g. household income, level of education, employment), area ( e.g. area deprivation, urban/rural characteristics) and school ( e.g. size, sector). Both interview data and administrative data drawn from school records has been analysed.

1.2 Policy context

Primary schools are very important places in a child's life. They often give the first experience of formal learning which can influence the route they take through the education system and their success within it. But primary schools offer more than just learning. They are important providers of care and support to children, and their experience at school can strongly affect a child's wellbeing. Additionally, as they are one of the few places that almost the entire population attends, they are well placed to identify children in need of extra support and to deliver that support.

Scotland has witnessed significant review, discussion, debate and development of its system for school education over the last 10 years. The National Debate on Education in 2002 opened up this discussion and asked probing questions about what Scottish schools should be like in the future, what pupils should learn and how the system could be made more effective. Key findings from the debate included an increase in pupil choice, simplification of assessment, proposals to reduce class sizes and to tackle discipline/bullying, improving buildings, giving headteachers more control of budgets, having teachers work across primary and secondary, involving parents more and strengthening the role of inspection.

From the debate, focus moved to the re-design of the curriculum via the Curriculum Review Group which, in 2004, published plans for the introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence - a widespread transformation of teaching practice and school education in Scotland with the aim of enabling "all children to develop their capacities as successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors to society". (Scottish Executive, 2004).

Since then a range of policy documents and legislation has been introduced to influence the way school education is delivered in Scotland. Those relevant are discussed in the individual chapters which follow in this report. However, all are now underpinned by a series of broad-ranging policy frameworks introduced more recently, all focussed on children and young people and having a specifically 'child centred, outcome-focussed approach' including the Early Years Framework, Getting it Right for Every Child and the Curriculum for Excellence.

The Early Years Framework ( EYF) covers the period from pre-birth to 8 years old, although the principles are applicable beyond this. Broadly speaking, the EYF aims to ensure that all children have the same outcomes and opportunities. Those at risk and those who have not achieved those outcomes should be identified and supported effectively with solutions developed within families and communities using public services where required. Although the emphasis is on children and families who may need greater levels of support, the policy is applicable to everyone.

The Getting it Right for Every Child ( GIRFEC) approach is designed to influence all aspects of policy and service delivery associated with children and young people. It places the child at the centre of decisions and aims to integrate the services they may need to ensure they reach their full potential. There are three key areas affected by this. First, practice - GIRFEC aims to give professionals the tools they need to do their jobs better and with greater support. Secondly, legislation - which will be introduced to ensure different agencies cooperate and share information. Thirdly, removal of barriers to joined up working. Many of the barriers currently preventing joined up working between agencies will be removed to ensure the child gets timely and appropriate help. The GIRFEC approach recommends that there is one 'named contact' who can coordinate help and advice for children and their families should they require it. In many situations, this will be their teacher, further enforcing the idea that primary schools are there to support children outside of the classroom as well.

The Curriculum for Excellence ( CfE), already noted above, has continued to develop and influence since the initial plans were published in 2004. Rollout of CfE into schools commenced in August 2010 meaning that children in the GUS birth cohort will be one of the first year groups to experience the Curriculum from entry to primary school and throughout their school careers.

1.3 The Growing Up in Scotland study

The analysis in this report draws on the experiences of children in both the child cohort and the birth cohort. However, given the larger numbers involved, where possible, and unless otherwise stated, the results refer to data from the birth cohort only. Where there is matching data from the child cohort, comparisons have been made to check for significant differences. Any such differences are highlighted in the text.

The eligibility range for dates of birth in each cohort and the fieldwork pattern is such that children in each cohort span two school year groups and are interviewed at different points in the school year. This means that children entered primary school across four school intakes in different years - two per cohort. In the child cohort, around two-thirds of children started school in August 2007 and one-third in August 2008. For some children in this cohort, Primary 1 data was captured at sweep 3, and for others it was captured at sweep 4. In the birth cohort, two-thirds of children started school in August 2009 and the remainder in August 2010 with the early school data captured across sweeps 5 and 6.

To obtain a measure of experience at school entry or in the first year at school has required data to be merged from two sweeps of data collection each corresponding with the child's first year at primary school. Those children whose data are taken from sweep 3 for the child cohort or sweep 5 for the birth cohort were, on average, younger at school entry than were those whose Primary 1 data were captured at sweep 4 or sweep 6 respectively. As the spread of age at entry when the two groups in each cohort are combined is similar to that of any single school year group this is not considered to be problematic. For example, at Primary 1 intake, children in a typical school year group in Scotland will range in age from 4.5 to 6 years old. As can be seen from the discussion in section 2.4 below, this range is reflected in the GUS data.

For some topics data are only available either for a particular cohort and/or a particular sweep. For example, the findings related to school lunches and travel to and from school in chapter 9 are taken exclusively from sweep 4 of the child cohort. As such they refer to children across P1 and P2. Where use has been made of specific data like this it is highlighted in the text.

Not all families who participate in GUS do so at every sweep. There are a number of reasons why respondents drop out from longitudinal surveys and such attrition is not random. All of the statistics have been weighted by a specially constructed longitudinal weight to adjust for non-response and sample selection. Both weighted and unweighted sample sizes are given in each table. Standard errors have been adjusted to take account of the cluster sampling 1 .

1.4 Education administrative data

This report incorporates analysis of education administrative data drawn from the ScotXed databases held by the Scottish Government Education Directorate. Permission to link survey information with this administrative data was obtained from parents at sweep 6. Of the 3657 parents interviewed at sweep 6, 97% ( n=3534) gave permission to obtain data on their child from ScotXed. Of these, a successful match between GUS details and education records was made for 3465 children (95% of those who consented). Further details on the matching process is provided in the technical appendix.

ScotXed collate a range of information associated with Scottish state schools and the pupils who attend them. A large part of this information is drawn from the annual school and pupil census. The school census provides a range of information on the school roll, including the total number of pupils and classes overall and at each stage. It also provides information, for example, on the number of pupils with additional support needs and who are receiving Gaelic education as well as details of the sblechool denomination and teacher numbers. The pupil census provides similar data, but at the level of the individual pupil, identifying - amongst other things - the school they attend, additional support needs, looked after status and level of Gaelic education. In addition to the census information, the other key dataset is on pupil attendance and absence. This data, which is drawn in September of each year, provides information on the number of sessions (or 'openings' - equivalent to a morning or afternoon at school) the child has been absent or late in the previous academic year, and the reasons for each absence.

Analysis of administrative data is mostly included in Chapters 3, 7 and 8. Its use has been clearly indicated in the text.

1.5 Presentation of results

Unless otherwise stated, all differences presented in this report are significant at the 95% level of confidence. Statistical significance may be presented either as 'Not Significant' ( NS) or at three levels of 'confidence' - 95% (<.05), 99% (<.01) or 99.9% (<.001). All figures quoted in this report have an associated margin of error, due to the fact that they are estimates based on only a sample of children, rather than all children. This margin can be estimated for each figure. For a figure which has a significance value (or p-value) of <.05 or 95%, this indicates that there is a 95% chance that the true value across all children in the subgroup (as opposed to just those in the sample) falls within the margin. Thus a lower significance value (of <0.1 or < 0.01) indicates a lower margin of error and a greater chance that the figure or relationship presented in the report occurs within the population.

1.6 Structure of the report

The report is structured across 11 chapters. Chapters 2 to 4 address issues associated with school entry and transition including consideration of deferral rates, school choice, the characteristics of the schools children in Scotland attend in the early primary years and issues associated with the child's transition to school including perceptions of readiness and adjustment. Chapters 5 and 6 move on to discuss contact between schools and parents and parental involvement in school activities. Chapter 7 presents a detailed consideration of data on attendance and absence whilst Chapter 8 examines the prevalence and nature of additional support needs. Some of the practical arrangements associated with children attending school - such as travel to and from school and before and after-school care - are explored in Chapter 9. Chapter 10 considers parents' overall satisfaction with their child's school before Chapter 11 presents data on parents' broader aspirations for their child.


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