On-Words – Literacy is key to success from Early Years

South West Early Years Communication and Literacy Conference features leading communication and literacy experts from the Education Endowment Foundation, the Research Schools Network, and the South West 

Early Years’ headteachers, nursery managers and literacy leads across the South West hear latest research and share what works in teaching communication and literacy

Reading, writing and oral skills are key to success in every subject, and for a fulfilling career and life, conference hears

Instilling a love of reading and teaching young people to express themselves fluently are the most important skills school can pass on to the next generation, experts at a literacy conference in Somerset heard.

Early years professionals from the South West’s primary schools and nurseries heard about the best approaches to developing these skills based on the latest research during the South West Early Years Communication and Literacy Conference, at the Dunster Tithe Barn on April 29.

They also shared their own evidence of what’s worked so others can learn from their experience and help close the literacy gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. A Talking Tots pilot in West Somerset has helped parents with two-year-olds at risk of delayed language play together and develop their communication and social skills. Early Talk Boost uses stories and a puppet to boost three to four-year-olds language skills so they can catch up with other children their age in their early language development. Or storytelling as a way of developing self-expression and a love of language.

Anne Harvey, Associate Research Schools Lead, said: “One of the most important things a school can do for all its young people is teach them to read, write and speak fluently.

“Literacy unlocks academic success in every subject, builds fulfilling careers and rewarding lives.

“But we need to provide the right intervention early so every child has the same opportunities to succeed in life – and that’s what we’re exploring.”

Teachers were signposted to the wide range of Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) reports and toolkits for effective classroom activities that research has shown to be effective.

The West Somerset Research School at the Blue School in Wells is also helping share research and evidence that has the biggest impact in the classroom and nursery so young people thrive.

Early Years is a priority focus for West Somerset Opportunity Area (OA), a Department for Education programme to help young people overcome obstacles to social mobility through education. The OA funded places for West Somerset’s early years practitioners as part of its programme to make sure every pupil has the skills and support they need to get on in life.

Megan Dixon, from the EEF, said: “It’s the sustained ongoing conversations amongst teachers and leaders that have impact on changing practice in the classroom and it starts in the Early Years.

“The evidence suggests that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds start school 4.3 months behind their peers and around 50% in some areas may start school with speech, language and communication difficulties.

“This gap grows unless early intervention gives them these young people the targeted support they need to catch up.”

Carys Barnett, headteacher at Exford Church of England First School, said: “Communication is a fundamental part of education and it is paramount that we get the foundations of this right.

“These kinds of functions are essential so everyone has the same message and a chance to listen to key note speakers as well as having opportunities for professional dialogues with colleagues from pre-school, nursery and childminders so we can support, guide and share new ideas.”

West Somerset Teens; Say Yes to NCS!

NCS is a 4-week programme for teens aged 15-17, that runs over the summer holidays.  It exists to engage, unite and empower young people; cultivating stronger, more integrated communities, building essential skills for work and life; and engaging young people in their communities, to create more understanding about their responsibilities as a citizen.

As the country’s fastest growing youth programme, NCS has made great strides in West Somerset in the last year; seeing a 75% growth in participation rates.  In 2018, 82% of young people felt more positive about people from different backgrounds after NCS, and participants tell us NCS helps them feel more able to have a positive impact on the world around them.

During the programme, teens spend their time making new friends and taking part in all sorts of exciting activities: a week camping on Exmoor trying their hand at exhilarating outdoor challenges; a week living in university-style accommodation developing life skills like cooking, budgeting and public speaking; and then giving back to the local community through their own community project – this could be fundraising or campaigning for a local charity, improving a public space, or something creative of their own making.

Kaylyn, a former West Somerset College student, took part last year. Before NCS, she had never been away from home alone before. This is what she had to say about it:

“I was a bit worried about leaving my Mum, as it’s just the two of us at home, but you quickly forget about home as you’re so busy.  I was also worried about having no phone signal, but we found no one was on their phones anyway, and no one complained. 

In week 1 we did lots of activities, like paddle boarding. Some people weren’t very confident, so we had to help each other get along. There wasn’t the competition you get in school.  It was great trying out new things and having to adapt.

In week 2, we had to do our own cooking.  It was an eye-opener that some people couldn’t even cut a pepper, but we all came together to help each other out and no one was judged.  The money management and CV-writing were really interesting, as we don’t do that sort of stuff in school.”

Kaylyn’s Mum, Emma, said “Kaylyn came back so much more communicative and social.  It’s amazing what a difference 4 weeks can make; she was more self-reliant and confident in her own ability. The experience pushed her outside of her comfort zone and gave her a break from life after the pressure of GCSEs.  It was a really productive way to spend part of the summer”.

Kaylyn added “On NCS I was in a group with others from my school; some of us had even been in the same tutor group for 3 years but had never spoken to each other before.  I don’t know why.  On NCS, we started speaking to each other straight away and no one was left out.  It was also really nice being around people from other parts of the county.  I loved it!”

All in all, it’s a great way to grow, learn and have a lot of fun over the holidays. 

Emma also couldn’t believe the cost.  The whole 4-week experience, including accommodation and food cost just £35.  No one will ever pay more than £50 and bursaries are available, including support for those with additional needs.

On NCS, there is a big emphasis not only on having a great time and making new friends (although this is a big part too), but also on developing, self-reflecting and giving back to their local communities in some way. Working together on an issue they care deeply about is often the most popular and transformative part of the programme.  In 2018, NCSers delivered over 1700 social action hours in West Somerset, supporting a range of voluntary and community sector organisations such as Minehead Eye, Cheeky Cherubs Preschool and Cuckoo Meadow Youth Project, as well as taking part in local environmental conservation work.

For their social action project, Kaylyn’s group decided to deliver an awareness and fundraising campaign for 2BU; a local youth support group supporting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender young people.

Kaylyn said “Our group decided quite early on the cause we wanted to support, as we felt more needed to be done to support LGBT awareness in our community.  2BU donated us some merchandise and we fundraised through a cake stand and face painting”.

By taking part in NCS, Kaylyn was given the opportunity to take part in African Adventures.  This summer she will be carrying her social action skills to the next level, spending 8 days in Kenya supporting school lessons and physical sports activity.

“I’d like to join the army, so I’m hoping my experiences there will help me learn more about supporting communities and a better understanding of how other people live.”NCS will be running programmes this summer all over the country.  To find out more, go to www.ncsyes.co.uk or call 0800 1978010

Physical Literacy Project

The Youth Sport Trust, a national children’s charity, has been commissioned to deliver an ‘early years physical literacy and social mobility project’ in all 16 early years West Somerset settings, through its Healthy Movers programme and resources which includes a Healthy Movers tool-kit and Development Tree. The project started in October and will continue until March 2020. Every child will receive a Healthy Movers Home Pack that will allow families to continue to promote physical activity in their homes.

This project will ensure that every child in the area has the opportunity to achieve a good level of physical development by taking a holistic approach using social, thinking, creative and physical themes. The delivery will also develop their language and literacy skills, increasing the children’s self-esteem and wellbeing, develop agility, balance and co-ordination which all help children to gain a better start to their life. We know that children who are more active with better wellbeing will achieve more. 

YST Learning Academy tutors, Flo Holmes and Kate Chaplin, are now developing, mentoring, observing and supporting professionals in each early years’ setting, on a monthly basis, to up-skill them to deliver the Healthy Movers programme as well as develop their competence and confidence in delivering physical development. The tutors are also assisting each setting to develop and deliver stay and play clubs for children and their parents/carers to play and be active together.

In just a few months the early years settings are reporting that Healthy Movers is so much more than a physical learning tool as they can see the difference it is making to the overall health and wellbeing of the children. Numerous settings feel that the “real gem” of this project is the monthly visits as Flo and Kate understand the strengths and challenges of each setting.

One of the Healthy Movers Champions said: “It’s really interesting to see, as we fill in the baseline data on the physical literacy assessment tool, how the children who are emerging on all of the physical skills are also the children with the poorer language and communication skills.”

Dunkery Pre-School in Cutcombe decided to show Ofsted the programme in action. Healthy Movers Champion, Jennie said: “It was a bit of a risk as we hadn’t been using the programme that long but the difference we have seen in the children at nursery since using the activities has been brilliant. They can sit still for longer, they’re more focused and they are learning from the activities how to relate them to everyday life.

“Some of the activities with the Healthy Movers is about controlling objects across the body and one day that will transfer to controlling a pencil, so we were keen to show Ofsted the work we have been doing. It paid off because Ofsted absolutely loved it and we came away with a ‘Good’ rating.”

For more information of this Early Years Physical Literacy project please contact:

Chris Caws – chris.caws@youthsporttrust.org

Youth Sport Trust South West Development Manager

Careers and Enterprise Activities

This academic year in West Somerset, every student in year 7 to year 13 will receive at least one encounter with an employer, as part of the opportunity area programme.

Research has shown that a young person who has four or more encounters with an employer throughout their schooling is 86% less likely to be NEET and can earn up to 18% more during their career.

Following on from the success of last year, the CEC have funded another round of careers and enterprise activities for the students of West Somerset. One of the funded activities last academic year was the Young Enterprise Company Programme, which a group of year 10 students took part in. Mentored by a local marketing expert, they set up a real business making West Somerset themed 3D animal craft packs for children, which they sold at a trade fair and a festival. They came second in the competition, across the whole county.

This academic year, students at Danesfield and Minehead Middle Schools and West Somerset College will take part in apprentice challenge projects delivered by CSW Group. The students will work in teams to design a new product, market it and create a five minute presentation pitch. They are mentored by employees and employers.

Schools are also working closely with Cornerstone employers. Cornerstone employers are local businesses who are going above and beyond their normal involvement to offer careers and enterprise activities to the students in the area. Butlins are organising a speed networking event for all year 8 students at Minehead Middle School. The students will get a chance to meet at least ten different businesses and ask them questions about working for them including the fire service, National Parks, National Trust and Brook Foods.

The Onion Collective are running a similar programme for year 8 students at Danesfield, inviting businesses into PHSE lessons and giving the students a chance to ask them questions like how much they earn and whether they enjoy their jobs. A range of businesses have taken part so far including Singer Instruments, Channel Adventures and Contains Art.

Activities are already being planned for next academic year, including a ‘Bake-Off’ for all year 7 and 8 students at both middle schools, which will be organised by professional chefs from the Beach Hotel and Butlins. As part of this, students will be given information on career pathways into the hospitality industry.

We are always looking for local employees and employers to continue delivering meaningful encounters with the world of work to the young people of West Somerset, whether it be organising an activity or giving an hour of your time to support activities like mock interview days. If you are interested in being involved please email Rosa Lewis on rosa.lewis@devon.gov.uk

How you can make sure your teen makes the most of their summer

Pamela Hudd – Localities Programme Manager, National Citizen Service

Society these days puts a lot of pressure on young people to stand out from the crowd and it seems to be getting more difficult to just rely on grades to get you where you want to be. Whether it’s applying for sixth form, job applications or university, establishments are now looking at what teens are doing outside the classroom, as well as inside it. It can be difficult, however, for all young people to have access to the same opportunities outside of school, which is why it’s important for different initiatives to help level the playing field for them.

Enter the National Citizen Service (NCS), a two to four week programme that brings together young people from different backgrounds in small groups, to reflect the social makeup of their local communities. The programme includes outdoor team-building exercises, a residential for participants to learn ‘life skills’ and a community-based social action project to give something back to where they live. For many, this will be the first time they mix with new social groups in their local area, through experiences designed to help them come together as a group.

And it’s not just building connections that young people benefit from on programme. Teens are pushed out of their comfort zone and encouraged to learn new skills, explore their local area and encouraged to think about issues that affect them and how they can help solve the problem. Independent research shows it works, with those who participate feeling more confident in their future life chances and opportunities agreeing that they have the skills and experience needed to get a job and also feel better able to cope with challenges in life.

NCS is uniquely designed to help young people develop confidence and integrate more into their communities across the country, whilst opening their eyes to the various charities and initiatives that operate in their region, encouraging them to get involved and make a difference through active citizenship. One of the key ways that NCS ensures this mixing occurs, is by placing young people in groups with a range of social backgrounds. This allows participants to form bonds with people that they wouldn’t usually encounter, helping them break social barriers that would otherwise be difficult to overcome.

To ensure that each programme is designed with their region in mind, NCS is delivered by local organisations and grassroots charities, which have a fundamental understanding of the makeup of the communities they serve.  In West Somerset, NCS is delivered by Somerset Rural Youth Project; an organisation with a long history of helping young people participate in positive activities, access training and employment opportunities and overcome the isolation of living in rural areas. 

More recently, NCS has begun working closely with West Somerset College, Somerset County Council, West Somerset Council and the Careers and Enterprise Company to make sure the way the programme is delivered to reflect local need.  We are forging relationships with key local employers, such as EDF Energy and Miles Tea & Coffee, to offer unique experiences to young people taking part in the NCS programme.  We also hope to trial a city-based residential as part of this autumn’s NCS programme, as an alternative for those already accustomed to camping in the countryside. 

And it doesn’t even break the bank! It’s important to us that NCS is accessible to everyone, so the entire programme is priced at £50, with bursaries available upon request. As an organisation, it’s important that young people are made aware of the importance of social integration and are encouraged to reach their full potential by helping them overcome social divides.

To find out more about NCS and sign up a young person for a local programme this summer, go to http://ncswest.co.uk

Independent research results can be found at: http://www.ncsyes.co.uk/sites/default/files/NCS%202013%202YO%20Evaluation%20Report%20FINAL.pdf



The relationship between language skills and social mobility

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[1].  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)[2], 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.


[1] Asdan Employability and skills forum (2012) virtual think tank survey results

[2] 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