Damian Hinds, in a speech last summer, promised to tackle the ‘last taboo’ in education by addressing the home learning environment and the ‘persistent scandal’ that many young children start school unable to speak in sentences.

Mr Hinds pointed out that ‘28% of children finish Reception year without the early communication and reading skills needed to thrive.’ Savvy schools are working hard to support children’s early oral language skills, knowing this supports the foundations for literacy and all other learning. However, the first few years of a child’s life are crucial. Mr Hinds is right in that children spend most of their time with parents in the early years, and therefore it’s parents who are going to have the biggest impact on their child’s early language and communication skills. ‘Improving the home learning environment’ policy document has the aim of halving the proportion of children who ‘do not achieve at least expected levels across the goals in the communication and language and literacy areas of learning at the end of reception year by 2028.’

From this, one might hope for increased funding for children’s centres or more specialist programmes commissioned to educate parents in how to support the speech, language and communication skills of their children from an early age. Yet, it appears the private sector are also being asked to put their hands in their pockets. Well-meaning companies such as Clarks are paying for 6,500 of their staff to be trained in talking to children, in the hope that by engaging children in conversation while they are trying on shoes, their language skills will improve (and it won’t harm public relations either).

For those families that can afford to buy their children’s shoes in Clarks this could mean two or three opportunities a year for these ‘shoe-store conversations’ – hardly the big impact needed to make significant headway into the problem of social mobility. And which children are more likely to be receiving footwear brands such as Clarks? Probably not the children from economically deprived communities who are most at risk for speech and language delay.

Similarly, WH Smith will be advising parents in Swindon on how to support their children’s language development. Need to pick up some stationery supplies? Perhaps you could enquire about Johnny’s language delay at the same time…

Of course, the glaring elephant in the high street is that we already have a highly skilled workforce specially trained to identify and support children with speech and language difficulties, and who are armed with the skills and knowledge to educate parents. Speech and Language Therapists have the expertise to tackle this problem, but like others, are at the mercy of cuts to health services and education. The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT) was consulted on the policy document and comments, “While the RCSLT welcomes recognition that communication is everyone’s business, it is widely acknowledged and explicitly mentioned within the DofE policy document that children who have SLCN require specialist help, including that from speech and language therapy services.”

This government initiative feels rather ‘light-touch’ in addressing this significant social issue, and skirts around the obvious question of why they are turning to retail businesses to fill a shortfall in early years services, when the real issue comes back to the funding of essential health and education services. Schools are reporting their most dire financial positions yet and a lack of funding has seen large numbers of children’s centres close across the country.

Yes, let’s highlight the issue of children’s language and communication development and encourage everyone to be involved – but let’s also keep pushing for more substantial solutions from the government.

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