The ability to communicate is a fundamental building block for each of us. It shapes our lives from the moment we are born and is influenced by a wide range of factors - including our own abilities, the homes we grow up in, and our early childhood and schooling.
A major UK study found that a child starting school with poor vocabulary skills was four times more likely to continue to have reading difficulties in adulthood, twice as likely to be unemployed and three times as likely to have mental health problems[i]. And yet in England up to 8% of children have language difficulties, whilst children from the most disadvantaged families are twice as likely to be diagnosed with a language problem.
These are some of the reasons why, from our inception in 2013, Public Health England set a priority to take action for every child to be ready to learn by the age of 2, and to be ready for school.
As part of our actions, today (10th October) we are hosting an event with The Communications Trust, bringing together experts, policy makers from across Government, voluntary groups representing families, services and local authorities. The event will hear the findings from two major new reports on this issue. Both reports were funded by PHE to improve our understanding of the scale of the problem, evidence of what works, and potential actions at national and local levels.
Language as a child wellbeing indicator, by the Early Intervention Foundation, found that disparities in child language capabilities are recognisable in the second year of life and are clearly having an impact by the time children enter school. If left unsupported, these children are more likely to fail to achieve their full potential. The report sets out opportunities for early identification of needs through universal services, such as the health visiting programme, as well as in early years settings such as nurseries.
The report by the Education Endowment Fund, Early Language Development:
Needs, provision and intervention for preschool children from socio-economically disadvantage backgrounds looks at how language and communication develops in early childhood. One of the main findings is the importance of the interactions of a child’s carer as to how well a child builds their skills in communicating – starting from recognising their carer, to babbling, to understanding words, and eventually stringing these together to form sentences. The second main finding was the role of professionals to identify as early as possible those children who may have a communication delay, and to intervene through a range of practices and programmes. Not all of these require expensive and long term interventions, but should be bespoke to the needs of each individual child and their family. The needs of children with special needs must also be taken into account, ensuring that no child is left behind.
Putting the learning together from these two reports, it is evident that there is much we can do across agencies. For example, supporting parents through their child’s early years to understand the importance of positive parenting, as well as responding quickly when children are not meeting their developmental expectations. Critically, the reports also stress that responsibility for building children’s communication skills doesn’t nest neatly with one service or department – it demands collective action across agencies.
By building our knowledge, shining a light on the data and the extent of inequalities, and engaging policy makers and service providers, public health has a critical role in driving improvements in all our children’s communication skills and abilities.
We will provide further information on our plans later this year.
Eustace De Sousa is the National Lead for Children, Young People and Family at Public Health England
[i] Law, J., Rush, R., Parsons, S., and Schoon, I. (2009). Modelling developmental language difficulties from school entry into adulthood: Literacy, mental health and employment outcomes. Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research 52, pp. 1401-16