Deprivation doubles risk of being lost for words

18th January 2013 at 00:00
'Significant' study shows impact of poverty on language skills

Children from deprived neighbourhoods who are entitled to free school meals are more than twice as likely as other pupils to be identified as having speech and language difficulties, a major piece of research has discovered.

Communication problems are also more prevalent among children from ethnic minority backgrounds than their white peers, and more prevalent among boys than girls, the government-commissioned report found.

The three-year study is the first to establish links between language problems and deprivation, ethnicity and gender using nationwide pupil census data, according to the researchers.

Academics from the universities of Warwick, Newcastle and the West of England and the University of London's Institute of Education found that the odds of being diagnosed with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) are 2.3 times greater among pupils who are entitled to free school meals and live in deprived areas. Researchers also found that children from some black communities are almost twice as likely as white pupils to be listed as having SLCN.

The findings "have huge implications for practice, and suggest children's needs are being missed", according to Professor Geoff Lindsay, who led the research. "There is a higher likelihood of children in some schools in socially deprived areas having problems learning language or developing speech," he added. "This reflects the lack of opportunity within these communities. Early intervention can help to overcome that. Putting resources into those schools is important."

Academics also found that pupils entitled to free school meals were 1.5 times more likely to be identified as having autistic spectrum disorders than their peers. White British pupils are twice as likely to be identified as having autistic spectrum disorders than those of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage.

The Communication Trust, a coalition of more than 40 voluntary organisations with expertise in speech, language and communication, has described the study as "the most significant investment to date" in research into the needs of children with SLCN.

Anne Fox, director of the trust, said it was "fully committed" to ensuring that teachers were better trained to support communication problems in children. "This should happen during their initial training as well as during their continuing professional development, especially as children's needs change over time and in different situations," she said.

Wendy Lee, professional director of the trust, said its work has found that half of children in some deprived areas start school with lower than average language skills. "In one area, 26 per cent of the children we saw had very significant speech and language problems and couldn't put a sentence together," she said. "It was harrowing to see."

There could be many more children from deprived homes with speech and language difficulties whose problems have not been spotted, Ms Lee added. "If half their cohort have speech and language difficulties it can be difficult for teachers to know what the norm is, and this means children will not be identified."

The Better Communication Research Programme was set up by the last Labour government following the Bercow review of services for children with SLCN.

Boys are two and a half times more likely to be identified with speech or language problems than girls, according to the study. Previous research has found that this is because boys have delayed development in speaking, listening and reading.

Children's minister Edward Timpson said it is vital that children with SLCN receive support. "The research provides a rich and extensive source of evidence on what works in identifying the needs of children," he said.

Key findings

The total prevalence of speech, language and communication needs has increased from 0.94 per cent of the population in 2005 to 1.61 per cent in 2011.

Support should be offered to meet the needs of children and young people across early years, primary and secondary settings.

Department for Education guidance on the use of the category "speech, language and communication needs" in the School Census should be reviewed.

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