The speech on social mobility by the Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds, was very important on many fronts. It is a welcomed confirmation by the Government of the critical importance of both language and literacy for children. It represents a long-term, 10-year commitment to supporting children’s language and literacy skills, and it is exactly the right thing to do if we are serious about addressing social mobility.
Hinds identified that there are far too many (28%) four and five-year old children in Reception without the necessary language skills to perform. He emphasised that, “When you’re behind from the start you rarely catch up.”
With such a positive initiative, it is important that we all have the same understanding of what our starting point is.
We should begin with a reminder of the scale of the problem: 10% of all children (1.4 million children in the UK, or 2-3 in every classroom) have a long-term, persistent speech, language and communication need (SLCN) that they will not grow out of on their own. This is an enormous number of children. These children have a language disorder and need specialist support to develop the skills they need to communicate and improve their life chances. That is why we published Bercow – Ten Years On this year in partnership with the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists – to highlight the issues facing these children and what can be done to improve the services designed to support them.
In some areas of social disadvantage, up to 50% of children show signs of delayed language, which means their level of listening skills, vocabulary and comprehension is below what it should be at their age. There are programmes designed to help these children catch up and can be extremely effective. I CAN’s Talk Boost series is one example, where 83% of children aged four to seven who compete the 10-week intervention reach the expected levels of for their age in understanding and using vocabulary. We need to spread the use of these interventions to as many schools as possible.
Another starting point is the role of parents in their child’s language development, which, of course is enormous. Most parents unquestionably want the best for their child, but many are understandably not familiar with the research that shows how important it is to talk to your child to develop their language. This is not a “bad parenting” issue and should not be presented as such. We need to support parents, especially in disadvantaged areas, in understanding ways and methods of encouraging language and creating a language-rich home environment.
The recent announcements and the Government’s 10-year ambition to halve the number of Reception children who do not have the expected levels of language and literacy presents us with a real opportunity to tackle social mobility. It will only happen if we work together across the sectors – the prize at the end of the decade is well worth it.