Poverty can’t be the last word for child literacy

20th May 2016 at 00:00
As growing up poor is predicted to become more common in Scotland by 2020, working with parents to support language through the early years is paramount

The UK is one of the most unequal countries in the world: children growing up in better-off homes are safer, healthier and more advantaged in their education than children growing up poor. Poverty is the gravest threat to children’s rights, wherever they live the UK – it is a destructive force in children’s lives and damages their prospects for the future.

The scale of the problem is widespread. It exists in every local authority in Scotland, affecting one in five children. There are many more families living on the edge of poverty, struggling to make ends meet. By 2020 it is estimated that as many as one in three children will be growing up poor.

The costs of caring for a new baby and the challenges of balancing work and childcare mean that families with young children are much more likely to struggle. The majority of children growing up in poverty are under 11. Parents are finding it difficult to heat their homes, pay for basic household essentials, or meet the cost of rent and bills. Stagnating wages, spending cuts and rises in living costs mean living standards are steadily falling.

Children are being robbed of their right to an adequate standard of living – they are twice as likely to be born underweight, more likely to suffer from short and long-term illnesses such as diabetes or obesity, and more likely to experience stress and mental health difficulties.

So, what does it mean to grow up in poverty in the UK in 2016? The poverty line for a couple with two children is around £400 per week, or £320 if you are a single parent. In reality, many families have to manage on even less. The everyday stresses and strains of raising a family on a low income makes it undoubtedly more difficult to create a home environment that supports children to thrive.

Finding money to replace a broken pram, cover the cost of school trips, or save for birthday presents is something many of us don’t have to worry about, but the grinding experience of living with little means tough choices for too many parents. It makes it hard to give time and energy to activities that can support a child’s development, such as reading books and playing imaginative games.

The lingering impact of poverty

It is an unbearable fact that children born into poverty are more likely to be poor as adults. The disadvantage that poverty creates has a lasting impact on a child’s education. The signs are visible from a very early age and lead to the unfair attainment gap that we all seek to eliminate in Scotland.

At two-and-a-half years old, children living in poverty are twice as likely as their peers to experience early speech, language and communication issues. If we don’t do more to help children living in poverty to develop strong language skills by the time they start school, we won’t meet our shared goals. Our report (bit.ly/ReadyReadScot) showed that when children fall behind so early it too often determines their future literacy and the extent to which they achieve throughout school. The impact can last deep into their adult lives.

More effort is needed to prevent and address developmental difficulties as soon as they occur. This should start by equipping parents and the children’s workforce with the skills they need to promote good language skills in those vital early years.

In particular, evidence points to the difference that highly trained staff can make. Every nursery should have the support of a graduate with specialist skills in early language and literacy. We also want to see training for health visitors and other frontline staff in how to build parents’ skills in supporting their child’s early language.

Parents have the most vital role to play in their child’s learning and development. They are children’s first educators and services should provide opportunities for parents to understand the difference they can make at home. The benefits of working with families in the early years must be sustained as they transition to primary school.

Community-wide initiatives

Working closely with parents to improve children’s outcomes must be core business for our teachers and school staff – as essential as teaching in the classroom. We need effective approaches in place in every school, based on sound evidence of what can work. Save the Children’s programme, Families and Schools Together (bit.ly/FASTForward), is an example of a successful model that can help schools to do this well.

FAST brings together parents, children, teachers and the wider school community to strengthen relationships and help parents to create opportunities for learning and development at home. Independent analysis in Scotland has suggested that this and other similar approaches could be a promising part of the mix of strategies needed to tackle the impact of poverty on children’s learning.

There are many challenges facing children growing up in low-income homes. However, poverty doesn’t have to be a life sentence – and it shouldn’t affect a child’s right to a good education. Our shared aim should be to help all children in Scotland, no matter where they live or their financial circumstances, to grow up with a love of learning and an equal chance at school and in life.

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