Basic language skills are essential to narrowing disadvantage for the nation’s young people, the Families Minister has warned, citing “scandalous” concerns for children as young as five.
Children’s Minister Nadhim Zahawi, detailing plans to train 1,000 health visitors to identify families struggling with communication skills, has said it is key that support is given at an early age. The scheme, to be trialled in some of the country’s most deprived areas, is aimed at providing a support structure for those most at risk of development delays. Young people who start school with poor vocabulary are twice as likely to be unemployed as an adult, the DfE has said, linking with Public Health England over the project.
And speaking to The Yorkshire Post as Wakefield is identified as a pilot area for assessments, Mr Zahawi argues that basic language skills are essential to improving outcomes.
“Being able to express yourself, and communicate, is the best way towards success,” he said. “Not just at school, but in later life.”
Mr Zahawi, born in Baghdad to Kurdish parents, had emigrated to the UK as a child, under threat of persecution from Saddam Hussein’s regime.
“I came to this country when I was nine years old, I couldn’t speak English,” he said. “I was a proud little boy, sitting at the back of the class. The teachers thought I had some learning difficulties.
“The better you can communicate yourself, the more doors open for you. It’s really crucial, especially in the early years. To start behind your peers, it’s so much harder to keep up.”
Figures from the Education Policy Institute show that an attainment gap equivalent to four months of learning, between disadvantaged children and their peers, is already in evidence when children start school, widening to 19 months by GCSE age.
As part of the drive to tackle a ‘word gap’ in communication, health visitors who routinely do home visits will now receive additional training around speech and language skills.
The first strand will involve 400 health visitors in 49 council areas identified as high need, based on deprivation factors including free school meal eligibility and communication at Reception age, where nearly a third of children are unable to meet expected standards. A further 600 health visitors will be trained from 2020 onwards.
Additionally, health visitors in five areas of the country including Wakefield and Derbyshire will trial an early language assessment tool.
“It is scandalous that 28 per cent of our kids still finish Reception year without being able to read, write and communicate to the expected standard,” said Mr Zahawi.
“The Secretary of State has said that we are going to halve that number by 2028. This announcement is part of that much bigger picture, to give parents that additional confidence.
“If we are to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children we really must think about what we can do differently. We have to make sure that we support parents,” he added. “The one professional that most parents will open their door to is the health visitor.”
Professor Viv Bennett, Chief Nurse at Public Health England, said: “Health visitors have trusted relationships with families and play a vital role in supporting young children’s health and wellbeing. This important new training will help more children develop the language and literacy skills they need to reach their full potential, ensuring that specialist support gets to those that need it most.”