When we talk about children receiving a good start in education there is sometimes an assumption that they all begin primary school on an equal footing. But children can grow up at a very different pace and in particular those who don't develop communication skills early on can face an uphill battle to catch up.
Getting to grips with language is one of the cornerstones of healthy growth for young children, which is why it is prioritised in official guidance as one of the core priorities, alongside physical and emotional development. As children's communication skills grow, they uncover completely new avenues of thinking. Toddlers begin learning not just by being able to put names to familiar objects and communicating with others, but also by exploring new sensations and concepts and arranging their thoughts. Language gives them a basis from which to grow and learn.
The statistics are well rehearsed. By the time children enter primary school they are expected to have reached certain developmental milestones, yet research from the Communications Trust suggests that there are over 1 million children and young people - that's 2 or 3 in every classroom - with some form of long-term and persistent speech, language and communication difficulty. Their speech may be faltering and their vocabulary smaller than their peers. They may use shorter sentences and be more likely to struggle with complex instructions. In up to 90% of cases those children then struggle with reading, putting their entire education firmly on the back foot. So it is vital that we tackle these issues from as early an age as possible.
The sad truth is that there is a strong correlation between an area's wealth and the language skills of its young children. Across the country around 1 in 8 children have difficulties of this type. In areas of deprivation that rises to over half - an astonishing and unacceptable figure.
Every child deserves the chance to reach their full potential, which is why I'm so pleased to see some truly innovative programmes tackle this problem head on.
Last month I was in Hull, a city with pockets of high deprivation and somewhere where a higher than average proportion of children have speech and language difficulties. I was really inspired during my visit by the pupils of Southcoates primary school, who confidently use the kind of creative language that most adults could only aspire to. Children happily chatted about the words they had found over the weekend and how they couldn't wait until Monday to try them out in the classroom. Their enthusiasm and sense of pride was palpable. They had found a key to a world they didn't know existed and they wanted to share their excitement at what they had found.
They had been taking part in "The Talk of the Town" - a project that has seen dedicated communication skills teaching incorporated into the weekly timetable. It stems from a two year trial led by the Communication Trust and the Education Endowment Fund. Since 2015 it, has been run by the school itself and it has seen participants' literacy and communication scores markedly improve.
Other programmes such as those run by the National Literacy Trust have taken a similarly community-based approach with schools in some of the most deprived areas of the country. Hundreds of children from parts of Middlesbrough with high rates of language difficulties recorded huge improvements in reaching early years goals. Though the Early Words Together scheme was national in scope, it worked because it stemmed from awareness of an issue on a local level, and was sensitive to local needs.
I also recently visited Longmoor primary school in Liverpool where children were learning Manadarin in reception class as part of a drive to give them the best start possible. Studies have shown that learning languages increases critical thinking skills, creativity and flexibility especially at an early age. Bilingual children score higher than monolingual peers not just in vocabulary and reading but also in standardised maths tests, and the critical thinking and problem solving encouraged with learning languages become valuable life skills.
For young children, the benefits of exploring communication in all its forms are there for all to see. I want to see more initiatives like these which encourage ambition and instil children with a love of language which will serve them well throughout their lives.