The key to social mobility lies in language

If we want to address social mobility, we must concentrate on developing young children's speech and language skills

Bob Reitemeier

social mobility

I attended the Commons Education Select Committee’s inquiry into life chances yesterday, and I was left thinking: "How do we draw the simplest conclusions between how we communicate with the world and our ability to reach our full potential?This is a question that is not new to me or I CAN, the children’s communication charity where I am chief executive. However, it is becoming a more frequent question in the light of recent reports into social mobility.

The inquiry by the select committee should shine a light on the direct correlation between children’s language development and their life chances. This is an area that I CAN has been focusing on for some time. We recognise the critical importance of building children’s understanding of speech, language and communication, and having a workforce that's confidence in identifying when a communication need might exist, and how to seek out appropriate support. Obviously, the earlier this can take place, the better for the child and their family. That is why we published, in partnership with the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, Bercow – Ten Years On, which provides a state of the nation report on speech and language services across the country, including examples of where early intervention works successfully.

Language is the fundamental life skill for children. It directly impacts on their ability to learn, to develop friendships and on their life chances. Even at the age of 2, language ability can strongly predict a child's subsequent performance on school entry assessments. The most important factor in reaching the expected levels in English and maths aged 7 is children’s language skills when they are 5. This is greater than the link to poverty or parental education. 

Quantity and quality

It is therefore important to understand how children develop language. The strongest predictor of children’s language development is the quantity and quality of the language they hear in their environment. There is much we can do to help support the home environment by working with parents, including showing how puppets, books and games can promote talking, and by emphasising the importance of "contingent talk", which is building language by focusing on what the child is currently looking at or playing with. We can also support the early years workforce by, for example, helping unite parenting attachment interventions with speech and language interventions, and stressing the need for multi-agency approaches, making children’s language everybody’s business.

This is especially critical if we are serious about addressing social mobility. We know that, by the age of 5, 75 per cent of children who experienced poverty persistently throughout the early years are below the average in language development, compared with 35 per cent of those who never experienced poverty. As many as 50 per cent of children from socially disadvantaged areas arrive at school well behind the expected levels of language development for their age and do not have the language they need for learning.

The fundamental importance of children’s language development cannot be overstated. I hope that the inquiry into life changes by the Commons Education Select Committee rises to the challenge of making this a priority issue for their work, and influences the government as a whole.

Bob Reitemeier is the chief executive of children's communication charity I CAN

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