Save the Children highlights early language gap

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The charity is calling for more investment in the early years to prevent children, particularly those that are disadvantaged, falling behind in language development.

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Save the Children's Read on. Get on campaign supports children's early language development

According to a new report by Save the Children, which commissioned UCL Institute of Education to analyse data from the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile, currently in England one in four children fails to meet the expected level of language at the age of five.

This rises to one in three for those from low-income households. Children from low-income households refers to those that fall under the criteria for free school meals.

‘Ready to Read’ says this equates to a total of 148,000 five-year-olds who leave Reception each year without good language skills - 40,000 of them from low-income families.

The report is the second to be published by Save the Children as part of its Read On. Get On campaign. The goal of the campaign is to ensure that every child achieves a good level of early language development by the age of five by 2020.

Researchers from UCL Institute of Education also examined data from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) to get a deeper understanding of the relationship between poverty and children’s early language development.

They found that the gap in language between advantaged and disadvantaged children begins from age three and persists through to when children start school. These children are also less likely to be able to read well at the age of 11.

Children who experience poverty persistently between the ages of nine months and five years face a much higher risk of experiencing language delays than those who experience poverty intermittently.

Boys continue to be more at risk of language delay than girls. According to the report, there is a 16 percentage point attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged boys reaching the expected standard at age five, compared to a 12 percentage point gap for girls.

Save the Children warns that without action to support children’s early language development so that many more children from low-income households have good language skills by the age of five, its 2020 goal will not be met.

Dame Julia Cleverdon, Chair of Read On. Get On. said, ‘Poor children, and poor boys in particular, are being set up to fail because too many haven’t developed the building blocks of learning before they arrive at the school gate for the first time. The government has made a strong commitment on literacy by setting clear goals to get all children reading well by the age of 11. What this research tells us is that this target is at risk unless we close the language gap.’

The report goes on to make a number of recommendations about how this can be achieved, including the Government carrying out out a review of the long-term mission of children’s centres, looking specifically at their role in supporting young children’s language skills.

The charity claims that children’s centres' mission is ‘too fuzzy’ and there is no shared strategic view of what they are for.

It says the independent Government review should consider, as a priority, the role of centres in supporting the development of children’s early language skills through working with children, parents and other professionals. It should also consider a range of other factors, including the age of children they should serve and their focus on the most disadvantaged.

The report also calls for:

  • a renewed focus on professional development so early years, health and other professionals have the skills to support parents with the basics of early language, and identify and refer children who need extra help;
  • a need for local services to maximise new opportunities to help early health and education professionals work together so that children’s needs are addressed in the round;
  • greater priority given to early language in local public health strategies.

Another concern of the charity's is the introduction of Baseline Assessments to replace the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile, which the charity fears will make it harder to track  young children’s language development.  

Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association, said, ‘We welcome this report which brings together research that definitively links a child’s future chances with the quality of their early years education.

‘Despite the difficulties with recruitment and lack of funding, the nursery sector workforce is committed to becoming better qualified to give a high-quality service. But more action is needed from the Government to support nurseries in meeting these challenges.’

A DfE spokesperson said, 'In order to raise the quality of early years learning we have improved qualifications and encouraged high-quality entrants to the profession, introducing Teach First into the sector. Settings offering our free entitlement have never been rated better and the quality of staff has never been higher. As a result, 100,000 more pupils are on track to be reading more confidently compared to 2012.

'We are absolutely committed to continuing the positive literacy trends in disadvantaged areas, which is why we have invested over £10 million in sector organisations and teaching schools and making sure parents have confidence in the people supporting the learning of our youngest children.'

Save the Children has also published a separate ‘Ready to Read’ report on Scotland.

  • Read more on the campaign here
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