Clarks Shoe Shop Is Planning To Teach Kids Language Skills – And We Have Some Questions

Surely you’re there for the shoes, not to conjugate a verb?

Next time your children have their feet measured, they might get a vocabulary lesson, too. Shoe chain Clarks is training 6,500 members of staff to engage kids in conversation in a way that’ll improve their language skills. It’s all part of a Department for Education initiative to stop them falling behind at school, as they say some children are turning up unable to speak in sentences.

There’s obviously the seed of a good idea here, but it’s a bit of a head-scratcher at best. And we’ve got a few questions.

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Firstly, putting potentially underwhelming puns about ‘tongues’ aside, are shoe-shopping and vocab lessons natural partners? There are probably a reasonable amount of tasty words thrown around in shoe shops by parents aghast at the prices, stressed out by their kids’ behaviour or dangerously fed up (I said the f-word in Schuh a fortnight ago looking at some beautiful, tiny but extortionate Nikes).

But surely you’re there for the shoes, not to learn how to conjugate a verb? You don’t necessarily want the shop assistant to focus on broadening your offspring’s verbal horizons when you hate shopping at the best of times and have a tired child about to go crackers.

How much time does anyone really spend in a shoe-shop? You’re there, what, 25 minutes every six months? Even if you’re generous and call it an hour a year, is it really going to make any difference to a child’s vocabulary? Nobody’s passing their afternoons browsing for small brogues and comparing buckles. You go in, get your kids’ feet measured, buy the shoes and get out.

And with Clarks, you’d be hard-pressed to name a more middle-class brand. A typical pair of Clarks girls’ school shoes costs 40-odd quid, and families who can happily afford that aren’t likely to be the ones this scheme is targetting.

Studies have suggested that children from the poorest homes are a whole 16 months behind their wealthier peers in terms of education by the time they start school. I’m just about doing okay financially, but the last shoes I bought my daughter came from Primark. (The nice lady in Schuh measured her feet, then I went to the cheaper shop and bought some almost identical for £6. Sorry everyone.)

Improving children’s vocabulary is incredibly important, as it’s hard to catch up later on – five-year-olds with poor vocabularies are more than twice as likely to be unemployed at age 34 than those with more extensive lexicons.

But are shoe shops the way to go at it? Other businesses taking part in the scheme include WHSmith, HarperCollins and LEGO – and this arguably makes more sense. Books, stationery and toys are all more interesting to kids than school shoes, and you can kill a lot more time in WHSmith than Clarks.

Everyone’s heart is in the right place, but it’s basically impossible to imagine the Clarks scheme making much difference in the life of a single child. In my opinion, place the money they’re using to train 6,500 staff somewhere where children might benefit from it and give this poorly-conceived scheme the boot.