On November 14th I attended a ‘Summit’ convened by government to engage the business community, media organisations, academics, charities and others in a national effort to improve the way parents are able to support their children’s early language development.
Suddenly the language skills of young children are centre stage. As a result of a string of influential reports from the Early Intervention Foundation, the Education Endowment Foundation and the children’s communication charity ICAN together with the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, the notion of the ‘word gap’ between disadvantaged and more advantaged children has caught the political imagination. Closing that gap became part of Justine Greening’s social mobility policy and has remained so even after a change of Minister.
As the Social Mobility Action Plan to support this policy has taken shape, announcements of new initiatives to close the word gap have come thick and fast. At first they seemed unrelated. But slowly a sort of coherence has emerged. I can almost (dare I say it) perceive a national plan such as we have not witnessed since the centralism of the Labour government gave way to the distaste of subsequent administrations for such directiveness – or sense of direction, depending on your political persuasion.
So what is this emerging plan? It has three strands: the home, early years settings (nurseries and schools) and local services.
Boldly, the strategy has ventured into the home and parenting, where many governments have previously feared to tread. Money (£5m) is being spent on schemes to improve the home learning environment. There will be a new ‘App’ competition to stimulate the development of digital resources for families, and a national coalition of commercial and media interests (including the BBC) will work with Public Health England, third sector organisations and others to raise public awareness of how to promote children’s communication skills in the home.
Early Years settings
This strand focuses on trying to increase disadvantaged children’s access to high quality early childcare and education, through encouraging better take up of government-funded places for the 40% most disadvantaged two year olds, and a £20m fund for professional development in non-school settings. For schools, new ‘English hubs’ will provide training on early language and literacy. For both school and non-school settings, there are planned changes to the Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum and assessment which will increase the emphasis on vocabulary development, and a £5m early years professional development and leadership fund.
The final strand brings in health practitioners and focuses on identifying children who are struggling to develop early language via a new tool that health visitors can use at the mandatory Healthy Child Programme developmental check for two year olds, training for health visitors in using the tool and in language development more generally, and a model Pathway which local areas can adopt (if they choose) to bring health and Early Years practitioners together to provide the developmental checks and appropriate support where needed.
The glue that can potentially bind all these strands together is the £8.5m for the Local Government Association, working with the Early Intervention Foundation, to develop a peer review programme and bid for money from an ‘Early Outcomes Fund’. This will give local areas the chance to reflect on strengths and gaps in their local provision, to learn from each other, and to put into practice models, tools and knowledge accumulated through all the individual elements of the social mobility action plan.
The plans are promising, but risky. They are risky because good public policy needs more than a catchphrase like ‘closing the word gap’. Catchphrases are useful; they are memorable and easily communicated. American researchers Hart and Risley would be surprised and pleased to know that their (rather old) research comparing the total number of words disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged young children heard in the home by the time they were four (popularised as the 30 million word gap), has had such an influence.
But the issues affecting some children, particularly those who are disadvantaged, are not as simple as politicians might imagine. First, we need to know whether that same word gap really does exist in a different century and a different continent. Hart and Risley’s findings have been disputed; LuCiD researchers have the tools and skills to clarify the extent of the gap in the UK. And we know from a range of research that it is not so much the number of words directed at children that matter, but the extent to which those words are contingent (that is, linked to the child’s focus of interest or utterance) and part of back and forth conversations. Riveting new research has shown that the number of such ‘conversational turns’ at 18 to 24 months of age accounted for 14% to 27% of the variance in IQ, verbal comprehension, and receptive and/or expressive vocabulary scores 10 years later , after controlling for socio-economic status.
So closing the word gap is not about talking ‘at’ children. Nor can it be reduced to reading aloud to children and teaching them nursery rhymes, songs and letters. Here too, researchers have a more nuanced message to offer politicians. What matters is not so much reading aloud but using books as a source of conversation and dialogue.
Despite this reliable research finding, there is a risk that Reception teachers may be exhorted to read more story books and have children sit passive on the carpet as a class for even longer than they do now, listening but missing out on dialogue. I worry, too, that adult-child ratios in early years settings may preclude vital back-and-forth conversations, and that this might explain why recent findings show that government-funded provision for disadvantaged two years olds is not succeeding in improving children’s language learning, whereas it does improve in informal daycare – care by relatives and nannies.
The application of research is important in tackling such potential pitfalls. More than ever we need researchers like LuCiD to provide the evidence that can challenge easy assumptions. At the same time, the research community must make an effort to understand the constraints that surround public policy. They need to help the politicians, rather than be tempted to snipe from the sidelines. So if over-simplistic catchphrases are being used, researchers could provide better, more accurate ones. If some of the programmes that are being trialled or rolled out have unrealistically short timescales, the research community has to remember that Ministers and their advisers work within fixed spending periods that currently end abruptly in March 2020, after which the Treasury may or may not provide further funding. It is difficult to take the long view when working within the timescales of the Comprehensive Spending Review, and an election cycle that means Ministers have at most five years to show results (or at least issue enough announcements) to make it look as if something is happening. All we can do – academics, civil servants, politicians – is listen to each other and try to do the best we can.