Pounds 2.75m speech project makes its voice heard in deprived area
A major project aiming to improve the verbal communication skills of pre-schoolers and early-years pupils in a severely deprived area - the largest undertaking of its kind to date - has reported significantly improved results.
The two-year Pounds 2.75 million Time to Talk programme, run in Sandwell in the West Midlands since 2007, worked with more than 8,000 children in schools, private nurseries and playgroups.
Across the borough, the number of children with communication skills that gave cause for concern dropped from 32 per cent to 21 per cent.
These figures will prove a major cause for celebration among educationists in Sandwell which has been one of the worst underperformers among local authorities in England.
Last year, Sandwell was joint 11th from bottom in the key stage 2 league tables.
In 2006, it was ranked 16th most deprived out of 150 authorities in the country, with four out of five households experiencing at least one measure of deprivation and one child in four entitled to free school meals.
However, Ofsted's annual performance assessment of the council in 2008 said the area was on the way to making significant improvements.
"The council's relentless and responsive focus to raising standards in primary schools means that the rate of improvement in all core subjects at key stage 2, and in mathematics at key stage 1, is well above the national trend and that of similar councils.
"Reading and writing at key stage 1 are improving at a rate above those in similar councils and in line with the national picture."
For the under-threes, Sandwell's Time to Talk programme focused on enhancing relationships with parents and carers - fathers, in particular, who may not have thought existing baby and toddler groups had anything to offer them. Among the initiatives were baby-massage classes and Daddy Longlegs stay-and-play sessions.
For three-to-five year olds a range of arts and music activities were funded, giving children the opportunity to create their own books, play with puppets and take imaginary bus rides around the world.
The scheme also funded the development of an assessment tool, called WellComm, which teachers can use to check how children's speech is developing and when interventions are needed.
Maggie Brookes, head of Warley Infant and Nursery School in Oldbury, said: "About half of our children come in at three with speech well below expectations. A couple had speech below what you would expect at the age of two.
"That means they are not able to talk in sentences and they do not always have clear speech. As a result, it is difficult for them to access the rest of the curriculum. It's not necessarily something they just pick up.
"Some children are reluctant to speak and won't unless you target them, build up their confidence and give them those basic skills."
All staff at the school were trained in assessing children's speech. Art, music and drama sessions included parental involvement.
Ms Brookes said: "One common thing that parents and practitioners were doing was answering for children. We've learnt that it doesn't matter if they pause for thinking time.
"If they are to learn to speak and listen, most of the talk must come from the pupils. We tracked the children and we are finding they do have better speech in Year 1 than before."
There has been growing concern about young children beginning school with poor language skills. Last year's Bercow report on services for young people with speech, language and communication needs said more targeted provision was needed in early years.
Kulbinder Thandi, Time to Talk's programme manager, said: "We commissioned a wide variety of interventions, from baby massage and dads' groups to creative arts and story telling in libraries.
"We also had a number of sessions for practitioners at settings, to help embed the practice into each session."
Time to Talk was funded by the Government's Neighbourhood Renewal Fund.