Since the early 2000s, Children's Centres have provided a crucial mechanism to support under fives and their families with speech, language and communication. At a time of huge cuts to Children's Centres - 800 of 3000 original centres closed at the last count, alongside vast budget cuts to the remaining centres - government is failing to set out a plan for the future of the sector. Worryingly, with unprotected funding and a lack of national purpose, there is a real risk to the impact of and resources in the remaining centres.
It's vital to have a sense of how these combined factors are affecting support for speech language and communication for the very youngest children. The relationship between poverty and language delay is not only well known, but the evidence that robust early support makes a huge difference is indisputable - early vocabulary is the biggest predictor of a poorer child being able to 'buck the trend' and escape poverty in later life. Equally,
the gap in children's language development opens up as early as three years, with children from lower income families on average 17 months behind their more affluent peers.
Our recent polling shows that although nearly half of Children's Centres consider speech, language and communication an area of primary focus, worryingly, over a third report there is not enough support for it - comments included:
"We used to have drop in sessions and explain speech and language development to parents, but these have now stopped"
"Speech and language intervention is picked up too late"
Respondents went on to express their fears for the future and convey the reality of the uncertainty they face:
"Children's Centres are going through a lot of change and I am concerned speech and language will be lost"
A consultation on the future of Children's Centres was promised well over a year ago; in the absence of any clarity, the future of the sector remains uncertain and fragile. Support for the under twos is particularly vulnerable - childcare and early education often kicks in when the child is two for more disadvantaged families, and take up of the two year old childcare offer is still well behind where it was hoped to be. These very young families could miss out on support altogether.
Speech, language and communication is crucial to school readiness and with a government which prioritises social mobility, it is worrying that a clear plan for Children's Centres has not been set out. We are calling on the government to set out its refreshed vision and to recognise that child development and robust, evidenced based support for speech, language and communication must be at its heart. The risk of leaving it any longer is too significant to take.
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