Ten years on from the Bercow Review (2008) and we are still hearing that it is a ‘scandal’ that children are even now starting school with impoverished language skills. Education Secretary, Damian Hinds MP, spoke this week at the Resolution Foundation’s headquarters in Westminster.
He identified the gap in language abilities of children from lower socio-economic backgrounds as a major factor in the challenges towards creating greater social mobility.
So what exactly isn’t working?
Highlighting a report released on Tuesday 31st July 2018 by the DfE, Mr Hinds spoke broadly about diminished employment opportunities for pupils entitled to Free School Meals and identified with Special Educational Needs. Pupils on Free School Meals are 23% less likely to be in sustained employment at 27 years of age compared to peers not on Free School Meals. Meanwhile children with identified Special Educational Needs are 25% less likely to be in sustained employment than their peers.
We know from the Bercow Review (2008) that 50% of children from lower socio-economic backgrounds arrive at Reception classes with a paucity of language skills, which are known to affect potential life chances. Mr Hinds, in his talk, outlines ‘Seven Key Truths’ about social mobility’ derived from discussions as part of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility formed in 2012, in which the role of schools and teaching is clearly identified.
Furthermore, the gap widens after children start school: ‘On average, disadvantaged children are four months behind at age five. That grows by an additional six months by the age of 11, and a further nine months by the age of 16. So, by the time they take their GCSEs they are, on average, 19 months behind their peers.’ (Transcript, Hinds 2018).
This suggests that the school environment, at least in part, is widening rather than narrowing the social mobility gap for children and young people most in need. This is despite research from, for example, the Better Communication Research Programme, which produced resources freely available to help schools, such as the Communication Supporting Classroom Observation Tool.
With the complexity of demands on schools and teachers at the moment, it perhaps isn’t surprising that even well-meaning intentions quickly become diluted. Finding and embedding structures that support schools to maintain a sense of focus while they actively explore long term changes to practice in extending communication and oral language skills may be crucial. After all, if we can’t support schools in achieving greater successes long term, how can we expect this of our most vulnerable in society?
Dr Amelia Roberts is Deputy Director of UCL Centre for Inclusive Education which runs a Knowledge Exchange programme: Supporting Spoken Language in the Classroom.