With recent government announcements on the development of strategies covering Life Chances, the early years' workforce and the future of Children's Centres, let's remember the fundamental importance of children and young people's speech, language and communication skills.
The recognition of the pivotal role played by the early years in determining the life chances of our children and young people is extremely welcome. The evidence in support of this is overwhelming.
Any meaningful commitment to improve life chances through support in the earliest years must include robust plans to make sure all children, regardless of their background or additional needs, can develop the speech, language and communication skills they need to succeed in school, the work place and their personal lives. It must also equip parents and those working with children with the knowledge and skills they need to spot when a child might be struggling and put in place high quality support at the earliest opportunity.
So what's the issue?
We know that children growing up in poorer areas are often disadvantaged before they even begin school, because too often they haven't been able to develop the language skills they need to get on.
• Children on free school meals are over two times as likely to have language difficulties compared to other children. In some areas of social deprivation, 40 - 50% of children start school with delayed language.
• Poor language skills are the key reason why, by the age of 22 months, a more able child from a poorer home will begin to be overtaken developmentally by a child who was less able earlier on, but lived in a more advantaged home
Children who have speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) too often aren't receiving the support they need in the earliest years to do their best at school and beyond.
• In the Early Years and Foundation Stage there is an attainment gap of 46% between pupils who have a Speech Language and Communication Need (SLCN) and those who have no Special Educational Need (SEN)
• This trend continues throughout a child's educational journey: just 15.8% of pupils with SLCN achieve 5+ GCSEs at grades A* to C including English and mathematics GCSEs compared to 64% for other pupils
Parents and the children's workforce too often lack the skills and confidence they need to support children most effectively.
• A survey we ran found that only 20% parents knew that what the expected level of language development for a three year old is.
• Evidence has consistently shown that many schools, teachers and trainee teachers lack confidence and skills to understand what typical language development looks like.
What can the life chances strategy do to address this?
The life chances strategy offers an opportunity to address some of the barriers that are most likely to hold children back. However, this requires a real and practical commitment from the government to recognise the importance of early language and the difference that support can make to a whole range of later outcomes. The Life Chances strategy must:
• Drive increased quality in early years' settings - evidence indicates that high quality early years provision can have a 'protective effect', reducing the chances of both children with SEN and disabilities, including SLCN, and those growing up in poverty from falling behind their peers. It is essential that the government makes quality a real priority. All settings with a high intake of children from disadvantaged backgrounds should have staff members qualified to Level 3 in speech, language and communication- the evidence shows that this makes a real difference.
• Support parents' to recognise typical language development, and to develop their understanding of how to support their children. Early years practitioners need to know how best to help parents and there is also a role for new technologies.
• Include a review of the current early years' landscape to take account of recent changes to childcare and Children's Centres to ensure the right opportunities exist for preventative work, identification and support.
The development of the Life Chances and related strategies provides a tremendous opportunity to make sure we're supporting children at the right time and in the most effective way. To be truly successful and to get to the heart of supporting disadvantaged children speech, language and communication must be treated as the bedrock of these ambitious proposals.