How closing the "word gap" could get more of Lancashire's children ready for school

Parents and carers across Lancashire will be encouraged to create a good “home learning environment” for their children in an attempt to boost the number of youngsters who are sufficiently developed when they start school.
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It is part of a wider plan to give the the county’s children the best start in life – particularly by ensuring that more of them have the necessary speech and language skills to thrive.

Figures show that Lancashire has fallen behind the national average for the proportion of five-year-olds who achieve a “good level of development” by the end of their time in reception class – with 69.2 percent having done so in 2018/19, compared to 71.8 percent across England.

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The measure is based on a series of goals, including expectations for levels of communication, language and literacy.

Time spent reading with a toddler could have long-lasting benefitsTime spent reading with a toddler could have long-lasting benefits
Time spent reading with a toddler could have long-lasting benefits

A meeting of Lancashire County Council’s education scrutiny committee heard that the so-called “word gap” – a lack of necessary vocabulary – is usually evident by the time a child turns two and could have implications throughout their school years and beyond.

“There is a disproportionate [percentage] of children who end up in the criminal justice system who have had speech and language issues,” said Sarah Callaghan, the authority’s director of education and skills.

“If that’s not identified and supported early on, a level of frustration develops and you’ll see it playing out in exclusion levels.

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“As much as we can target support through our services, we also need to engage with our parents. Research tells us that the biggest influencing factor for a child in terms of early years [development] is maternal support.”

Lancashire’s new early years strategy seeks to promote the take-up of free childcare entitlements – and to use them and other contacts with children in their early years to offer parents advice about how to get their youngsters ready to learn by the age of two and ready for school by the age of five.

The meeting heard that support will be targeted in more deprived areas, where fewer children reach their development goals. But committee member Jennifer Mein warned that fostering a home learning environment would be a challenge for families from difficult backgrounds.

Currently, around 4,300 Lancashire children are not achieving a good level of development by the end of reception – just under one in three.

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Co-opted committee member Dr. Sam Johnson, representing Church of England schools, said the aim should not be to reduce that number to the national average, but to close the development gap completely.

Lancashire’s director of public health, Dr. Sakthi Karunanithi, said the plan was about “laying the foundations for generations to come”, while Ms. Callaghan added that Lancashire should not have “anything other than the highest ambition for all our children”.