Closing the word gap: learning from five areas who have gained ground
Jean Gross CBE summarises what we learned from speaking with five local authorities who have seen success in reducing the early language gap between disadvantaged children and their peers. Jean is an EIF associate and formerly the government’s Communication Champion for Children.
EIF has published five case studies of local areas which have managed to reduce the early language gap between disadvantaged children and their peers – a gap that research shows can be seen as early as 18 months. I worked on the case studies with a professional researcher: it was a fascinating exercise and here I want to draw out some of the learning.
What did we do?
The choice of case study areas was mainly based on increases in the percentage of children eligible for free school meals (FSM) achieving at least the expected level of development in the Communication and Language area of learning of the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP). The time period we looked at was 2016 to 2018, because 2019 local authority-level FSM data had not been published when the authorities were chosen.
There were secondary selection criteria, too, related to overall FSM communication and language outcomes and the gap between children eligible for FSM and all other children nationally. We tried to get a balance of different types of local authorities, from large counties to smaller metropolitan and London boroughs. This means that the areas chosen were not necessarily ‘best in class’ – we could have chosen others. But something was clearly working in all of them, and the detective work was to try to find out how and why.
Could it have been as straightforward as outstanding practice in reception classes that quickly ‘caught up’ children coming in with delayed language? Or might the important inputs have stretched back in time, perhaps to when that 2018 cohort of 5-year-olds were toddlers, or when they first started in a nursery?
These were some of the questions we explored in interviews and focus group meetings with a cross-section of individuals in each local authority. We also looked at key local authority documents and at trends in national data.
What did we find?
The national picture
Our analysis looked at national, regional and local authority-level variations in the gap between FSM and non-FSM pupils achieving the expected level in communication and language. Regional variation is substantial: in 2019, London had the smallest communication and language FSM and non-FSM achievement gap, with the East Midlands and South West having the highest.
Gender differences are interesting: there appears to be a larger gender gap for FSM than for non-FSM children – driven by the low achievement of FSM boys. Importantly, the analysis showed that at national level there has been very little change in the FSM gap over the years 2016 to 2019. We still have a long way to go, so sharing effective practice where it exists, as in these case study areas, seems a good way forward.
Case study themes
Five case studies is a very small sample and one would need many more to draw any firm conclusions about what works in closing the gap. There were, however, some themes that ran through the case studies.
Theme 1: Partnerships and integrated working
In every area we visited, we found joined-up work on language and communication, with professionals from different services collaborating on initiatives and making joint decisions about children. In the past, I’ve often been involved in national network meetings for representatives from local areas where many in these local ‘teams’ had never met each other before. That was definitely not the case in the areas we visited, where we met with groups of people who were clearly accustomed to working closely together and had good relationships.
Theme 2: Early identification and intervention
The mandated Healthy Child Programme reviews were working well in the case study areas, identifying children in need of additional help with their language at age 2 or often even earlier. But health visitors were not working alone: family hub or children’s centre staff and practitioners in early years settings used assessment well to spot needs and track children’s progress.
Importantly, the areas had worked on upskilling practitioners in early years settings to deliver communication and language interventions themselves, and to work with families, children did not just sit on long speech and language therapy service waiting lists. Many did not need to be referred to speech & language therapists at all, because their speech and language needs were lower-level and could be met by well-trained settings and well-supported parents.
Theme 3: A focus on the family
All the case study areas had retained a focus on early years speech and language in their various arrangements for children’s centre/family hub/early help services. Most had developed interesting family-focused early language initiatives, from home learning to help from a team of dedicated early communication support workers.
Theme 4: Getting it right for 2-year-olds
In every case these study LAs had consistently higher take-up of funded places for 2-year-olds than the national average, and an above-average percentage of these children in good or outstanding provision. The national evaluation of the pilot of the 2-year-old offer found that the children who took part had improved language outcomes, where the provision was high-quality. It is possible, therefore, that there is a link between the early childcare provision in the case study local authorities and the later language outcomes for their disadvantaged children on the EYFSP.
Theme 5: High-quality provision in early years settings
Most of the case study areas also had an above-average proportion of funded 3- and 4-year-olds in good or outstanding provision. This wasn’t, interestingly, because more children were in settings with staff with higher-level qualifications. High-quality provision could be achieved, it appeared, with very diverse providers and often with large numbers of providers. All the case study areas had, it can be noted, kept a strong team of early years advisors using data well to target settings for hands-on support.
Theme 6: A skilled workforce
The areas we visited often had a legacy of skilled practitioners as a result of previous well-embedded training programmes, such as Every Child a Talker. They continued to provide substantial professional development in speech and language, using evidence-based methods: not one-off courses, but sustained opportunities for learning through coaching, use of video, reflection, action research and peer-to peer support.
What did we not find?
As interesting as these shared elements are the things not found in all the case study areas.
There was rarely a sense of a ‘big bang’ – a definitive change at the beginning of the period we focused on. More often, what we saw was a committed group of people keeping on doing what they had already been doing for some years, with gathering momentum.
Not all the areas had a well-developed strategic approach to early language. It was hard to find any specific mention of early language in joint strategic needs assessments or even children and young people’s plans. Instead, what we saw was individuals (both elected members and senior leaders) who ‘got’ the importance of early childhood development and early intervention – often as a result of their own professional background as local authority early years leads, teachers, or (in one local area) health visitors. These key individuals then championed early childhood initiatives and helped to protect spend in this area through a period of austerity and in the face of competing and often pressing priorities.
We did not yet see a great deal of use of evidence-based interventions to support early language development, of the kind listed in the EIF Guidebook and The Communication Trust’s What Works database. Other than a few instances of Family Nurse Partnership home visiting or small-group interventions like the Nuffield Early Language Intervention or ICAN’s Talk Boost, what we tended to see was practices rather than programmes.
And finally... the challenges
Our interviewees had faced challenges with which every local area is familiar: austerity, restructuring, recruitment difficulties, rapid growth in numbers of children with speech, language and communication needs, sharing information across agencies. This last issue seemed particularly intractable: even with strategic will and high-level agreements, the complications of GDPR and incompatible IT systems often got in the way. But the case studies suggest ways forward with this, as with the other challenges.
What lessons can we learn?
What the case studies show is that there are many different ways of achieving the same end. There are nevertheless perhaps some takeaway messages for local areas – these are mine.
Know your starting point: for 5-year-olds, this is the FSM Communication and Language data in the dropdown menus on the DfE’s Early Years Outcomes Dashboard, and for 2-year-olds it’s the Communication and Language data on PHE’s Fingertips tool.
Work hard to get as many funded 2-year-olds as you can into high-quality provision.
Build skills and capacity to help disadvantaged parents support their child’s language development from birth onwards. Capitalise on Public Health England’s training programme for health visitors and national DfE and BBC campaigns, to make this the moment for a local strategy.
Work together across agencies to develop a workforce skilled in early language, and consistent systems for identifying early and providing for those children needing extra help.
Learn from others – not just from these case studies but from the opportunities provided by the LGA peer review programme, or using the PHE Guidance and EIF’s Maturity Matrix, and from your regional and statistical neighbours. Every local area is sure to have some interesting practice to share in the domain of early language, now so widely recognised as critical to children’s long-term life chances.