Health visitors to be trained to close the word gap

Thursday, February 28, 2019

A thousand health visitors in the most deprived parts of England will be given specialist training to help close the language gap between disadvantaged children and their peers.

The plan was announced today by the children’s minister Nadhim Zahawi at a conference of early years professionals in Manchester.

Health visitors – who routinely do home visits to check on a child’s development at age two – will receive extra training to identify speech, language and communication needs early on, with a new assessment and support package.

The programme is a joint initiative between the Department for Education and Public Health England (PHE) and will focus on parents who may lack the time, resources, or confidence to support their children’s learning at home.

The first wave of training involves 400 health visitors in 49 areas identified as being in high need, based on deprivation factors including free school meal eligibility and the EYFS Profile results for speech, language and communication at the end of Reception.

Children and Families Minister Nadhim Zahawi is expected to say, ‘Being able to communicate and express yourself is the gateway to success, not just in school but in later life. It’s these crucial early years that make the most impact on a child’s future path – because for those children who start out behind their peers, it’s so much harder to catch up.

‘The evidence tells us that we need to improve children’s communication and language before they arrive at school, when so much of a child’s time is spent at home, to help get them on track to be confident, able learners.

‘If we are to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children, we must think about how we can do things differently – including through parents. No parent has all the answers – so we need to make it easier for them to kickstart their child’s learning at the earliest opportunity, whether by encouraging them to take part in educational activities as a family, support from trained experts at home to identify concerns earlier, or better access to high-quality early years education.’

The Institute of Health Visiting has been commissioned by PHE to carry out the training, which has already started in some areas.

The next wave will train 600 more health visitors from 2020 onwards.

Professor Viv Bennett, chief nurse at Public Health England, said, ‘Health visitors have trusted relationships with families and play a vital role in supporting young children’s health and wellbeing. This important new training will help more children develop the language and literacy skills they need to reach their full potential, ensuring that specialist support gets to those that need it most.’

The move follows Education Secretary Damien Hinds’ ambition to halve the proportion of children leaving Reception without the communication, language and literacy skills needed to thrive within the next ten years.

Health visitors in five areas of the country – Derbyshire, Newham, Middlesborough, Wakefield and Wiltshire - will trial a bespoke early language assessment tool being developed by the University of Newcastle, led by Professor James Law.

The assessment tool will be designed to be quick and easy for health visitors to use to support their professional judgement, taking into account any concerns raised by parents and carers. It will be trialled for the first time this summer and rolled out nationally in 2020.

In response the Institute of Health Visiting said, 'Promoting Speech, Language and Communication (SLC) is core to health visiting and the profession is valuing this high-level endorsement of their critical role.

'Equally, it builds on current practice and interventions with families. It’s essential to maintain a highly skilled workforce and, as part of the development of this PHE-commissioned SLC training developed by the Institute of Health Visiting, a survey of health visitors found that 98 per cent of them would value evidence-based training on SLC. This new training is to enhance current practice and ensure that health visitors have the evidence to support families with Speech, Language and Communication.'

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