Children arriving at school unable to speak or read properly is a ‘scandal’, minister says

'This matters, because when you’re behind from the start you rarely catch up,' Damian Hinds will say

Eleanor Busby
Education Correspondent
Tuesday 31 July 2018 13:16 BST
Education secretary Damien Hinds launches campaign highlighting importance of early-years learning for social mobility

It is a “scandal” that young children are not able to speak or read properly when they arrive at school, the education secretary will say in his first speech on social mobility.

"This matters, because when you’re behind from the start you rarely catch up," Damian Hinds will add as he launches a coalition of businesses, charities, tech and media groups to encourage more parents to read and learn new words with their children.

He will add: "Your peers don’t wait, the gap just widens. This has a huge impact on social mobility.”

The latest statistics from the Department for Education (DfE) showed 28 per cent of four and five-year-olds lacked the early communication skills – such as being able to talk about events in the past or future – expected by the end of reception year.

Mr Hinds will set out his plans to halve the number of children starting school without vital literacy skills by 2028.

An awareness-raising campaign – similar to the “five-a-day” campaign that encouraged more people to eat fruit and vegetables – could be introduced to change busy parents’ behaviour.

Mr Hinds will say: “It is a persistent scandal that we have children starting school not able to communicate in full sentences, not able to read simple words. This matters, because when you’re behind from the start you rarely catch up. Your peers don’t wait, the gap just widens. This has a huge impact on social mobility.”

Mr Hinds will highlight that the vast majority of preschool children spend most of their time at home, adding that the government cannot afford to ignore “the home learning environment”.

“I don’t have any interest in lecturing parents here," he will say. "I know it’s parents who bring up their children, who love them, who invest in them in so many ways, who want the best for their children. But that doesn’t mean extra support and advice can’t be helpful."

The coalition will hold a summit in the autumn to come up with practical ideas that boost parents’ confidence to support their child’s language and literacy from an early age.

Children with poor vocabulary at age five are more than twice as likely to be unemployed aged 34 as children with good vocabulary.

Mr Hinds will add there are “legitimate worries about screen time” but he hopes technology can be used to “build parents’ confidence” around early language development.

Earlier this month, acclaimed author Philip Pullman said parents needed to get off their mobile phones and speak to young children to boost their vocabulary.

Amanda Spielman, head of Ofsted, has also raised her concerns about the word gap. Following her speech to nursery leaders, early years experts suggested that the fact a lot of parents were spending time on their phones had contributed to poor language skills among young children.

Their comments came after a study earlier this year found that nearly half of five and six-year-olds are at risk of underperforming because they have a limited vocabulary.

Since then, the DfE announced that parents would be given advice on how to sing nursery rhymes, teach the alphabet and a range of other activities they can do with children before they start school, in a bid to close the “word gap” between disadvantaged pupils and their peers.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, a charity dedicated to breaking the link between family income and educational achievement, said: “We know that what happens before school starts has a profound impact on a young person’s academic attainment later in life.

“The minister is absolutely right to set an ambitious target for closing the early literacy gap by focusing on the home learning environment.”

He added: “While achieving this won’t be easy, we know that all parents care about the future of their children. However it can sometimes be difficult to get them involved in their child’s learning and we know little about how to do this well.”

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