Many children in West Somerset start school with language skills below average for their age, West Somerset also has the lowest social mobility of any local authority area in the UK, coming in at 324th out of 324 bodies in both 2016 and 2017. Is this a coincidence or something else?
There is considerable research closely linking good language skills with doing well at school and having good social skills, both of which are critical factors to improving social mobility. Being offered a place at a good university or employment with good prospects relies on a certain level of competency in language and communication skills. From a survey of schools, employers and politicians, good communication skills are in fact rated as the top/most important employability skills needed for young people entering their first job. And in an employment market with a shrinking number of manual labour jobs, having good communication skills has never been more important. So it seems that having the skills to understand and articulate information and ideas is key to making a difference to social mobility and critical in enabling children and young people to escape the cycle of social disadvantage.
In West Somerset Opportunity Area I CAN have been working with the Early Years Working Group, made up of operational and strategic leads in Somerset to improve social mobility across the area with one area of focus being early language skills. Research tells us that good language at age 5 is the most important early skill in helping children to escape poverty (Blanden 2006), so it makes sense to make this part of the work that is going on there. Developing a universal offer to both families and early years settings, and a targeted approach for those children who need slightly more support to help them narrow the word gap with their peers, has been key.
Workforce development is fundamental and ensuring that all early years practitioners have knowledge of typical communication and language development and use strategies and interaction styles to maximise opportunities to develop every child’s skills will lead to change. Identification of speech, language and communication needs at this early stage is also essential if the impacts of having poor communication skills, such as literacy difficulties, behaviour, social and emotional problems, are to be avoided as children progress through school. What’s additionally important is helping staff to embed any training in practice, so providing resources and ongoing support makes a difference to everyday practice. Long term impact is crucial so looking at ways to ensure learning and changes in practice is sustainable is key.
One of the ways that settings in West Somerset are tackling the issue of poor language skills is through I CAN Early Talk Boost. This is a targeted intervention for 3-4 year olds with delayed language which, following training, staff can deliver to a group of children during nursery sessions. It includes a workshop for parents, which gives parents skills to share books with their children, another key boost to language development.
Listening and working with families is important to ensure that they know how to support their child’s language development and realise when they are not progressing as they should.
The focus on communication sits alongside other planned interventions including physical literacy and Home Start focused work with families, all of which will work together to give children the best start in life. Real change takes time and there is much work to be done, implementing new approaches and evaluating impact, but already there is a feeling of optimism in the area and communities that outcomes for children in West Somerset can improve.
 Asdan Employability and skills forum (2012) virtual think tank survey results
 Blanden J (2006) Bucking the Trend: what enables those who are disadvantaged in childhood to succeed in later life? Dept of work and pensions working paper no 31