The language epidemic

10 October 2017

Jean Gross highlights the ever-growing mass of evidence for the importance of early language development to children’s longer-term outcomes, and sets out some key questions for experts and policy-makers to answer in order to achieve change. Jean is a trustee of EIF, and a co-author of The Communication Trust’s recent report on child language.

If there was a direct link between the number of reports on an issue and the focus given to it in national policy and spend, we might by now have substantial action to improve children’s speech, language and communication skills. Recent months have seen hard-hitting reports from The Communication Trust, the Early Intervention Foundation and the Education Endowment Foundation. Before this Save the Children, the Sutton Trust, Centre Forum and the Centre for Social Justice have also all drawn attention to the predictive power of early language for children’s later life chances, and the links between language and social disadvantage.

From reports like these we know, for example, that early spoken language skills are the most significant predictor of literacy levels at age 11. We know that language at age three is a key element in a composite ‘brain health’ measure that accurately predicts which individuals will be of very high cost to society 35 years later. We know that children with poor vocabulary skills at age five are four times more likely to have reading difficulties in adulthood, three times as likely to have mental health problems, and twice as likely to be unemployed when they reached adulthood, when controlling for other factors.

Income-based gaps in children’s language development are already present at 18 months, it appears. By the age of five children in the lowest income group have language skills on average 19 months behind children in the highest income group; the gap in language is very much larger than gaps in other cognitive skills, and larger in the UK than in other developed countries. There are stark geographic inequities, too, with affluent areas in the South East, like Bracknell Forest and Windsor and Maidenhead, showing particularly marked differences in the odds ratio of poor children and their peers achieving the required standard of communication and language at age five.

And yet… and yet … when we look at the policy context, we find that the Early Years Pupil Premium (targeted at narrowing poverty-related gaps in learning and development) stands at around £300 per child receiving 15 hours provision a week , while the Pupil Premium for primary school children is over four times that, at £1320. We also have government proposals to introduce a baseline assessment at age four that will focus on early literacy and maths skills, rather than language. True, these assessments are not intended to be used formatively, or to identify children in need of help, but the signals this decision gives about what really matters in the early years are unfortunate. What gets measured gets done; what isn’t tends not to.

At the local level, responsibility for provision for children’s early language difficulties falls uneasily between local authorities and NHS clinical commissioning groups. Public health strategies for obesity proliferate, but are largely absent for another kind of epidemic – the rapid growth in young children’s language difficulties.

I do not use the word epidemic lightly. Just weeks ago a survey of headteachers found that concerns about lack of school readiness on entry to Reception have increased, with 97% of respondents identifying speech, language and communication needs as their greatest concern. Health visitors, too, report increasing needs – nearly three-quarters report that they have seen a significant growth in numbers of children with speech and communication delay over the past two years.

So what can we do to tackle the problem? Today, experts and policy-makers are coming together under the auspices of Public Health England to consider the findings of the EEF, EIF and Communication Trust reports. The aim is to agree a shared vision for improvement of speech, language and communication in children under five. The questions I think we need to consider include:

  • Are our current systems for identifying children who need help working well, and sufficiently early?
  • Where will we find the appropriate workforce to provide help if children are identified – particularly the under-twos, who will not be in government-funded daycare?
  • How do we make sure the early years workforce get the right training, in the face of high turnover and lack of funding?
  • What will make local areas invest in early language as a public health issue?

I have high expectations for the event, which has good representation from government, the third sector and academia. There will be a lot of wisdom in the room; let’s hope we can unite around a set of practical recommendations.