The recent speech on social mobility by Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds, is an important development on his predecessors. A greater focus on early language and literacy is to be welcomed and the fact that this is even being mentioned is a positive step forward. We know that developing early language is a crucial developmental step for children, especially those who have other disadvantages.

Hinds pointed to the long-term outcomes for children eligible for Free School Meals (in Year 11) are ‘23% less likely to be in sustained employment at the age of 27’, he also mentioned a similar picture for those young people with Special Educational Needs; pupils with SEN in Year 11 are 25% less likely than their peers to have secured sustained employment at age 27. What he did not mention was that DfE’s own analysis shows that over a quarter of children eligible for FSM are also SEN, which skews these results to look more similar than they might actually be.

There is little doubt that most of us both agree that things need to change and this ‘national mission’ must be led by a senior public figure, in this regard Hinds shows more promise than those who came before him.

Parents feature strongly in the speech and whilst Hinds makes it clear that for a variety of reasons, they may struggle to support the development of language and literacy in their children they can have a positive impact. In my experience parents of children with SEND are often the most active and engaged members of the team around an individual child. They play a key role in coordinating provision across multiple agencies, especially across the health and education worlds.

What happens when these parents, similarly the schools their children attend, cannot access additional educational support, as might be provided by teachers with enhanced knowledge in SEND? The Department does not hold any central records of the number or geographical spread of these professionals. Driver Youth Trust (DYT) reported back in 2015, that closure of local authorities’ services risks this highly experienced part of the workforce simply disappearing. Some of DYT’s partner schools already report a complete loss of specialist support from their local authority and whilst not a systematic national picture, anecdotally this is not geographically isolated.

What does this mean for children who struggle with language and literacy, not just in early years settings but into primary and beyond?

Recent analysis by DYT shows that the picture for some pupils looks rather different when comparing key outcomes in primary. DYT considers those pupils with persistent literacy difficulties, as evidenced by these outcomes and others, to have Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLD) and/or Speech Language and Communication Needs (SLCN). For example:

  • Phonics: only 43% of pupils with SEND achieve the expected standard compared with 87% of pupils with no identified SEND (gap of 44%). Look further and for those pupils with Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLD) and the gap widens to 51%.
  • Key stage 2: In 2017, 18% of pupils with SEND reached the expected standard in reading, writing and mathematics, compared with 70% of pupils with no identified SEND (gap of 52%). These outcomes drop to 16% for pupils with SpLD and 15% for those with Speech, Language and Communication Needs (SLCN).

There are programmes working in areas with significantly poorer outcomes to support schools to help close these gaps. DYT’s, Drive for Literacy programme, is one example where schools we have worked with have increased above the national average their pupils reaching the expected in reading and writing. Whilst the programme does not currently work in early years settings, it is clear that interventions exist which can help schools to improve outcomes and we need to spread their use as widely as possible.

If I reflect on my role as chair of governors in an infant school, with an on-site nursery in a leafy affluent suburb, then I can appreciate that parents who readily engage with their children, listen to them read and encourage them to build their vocabulary through meaningful social interaction, are giving them an advantage. However, this means nothing if, when entering a formal classroom, those children with Special Educational Needs are not provided with opportunities to access the curriculum.

If Hinds really wants to make this a defining part of his tenure, then he is going to have to consider where children with persistent literacy difficulties fit into his vision. I accept Hinds’ point is that children growing up in challenging circumstances cannot rely on their parents to provide them with these opportunities, in absentia. However, what about those parents who are engaged in routinely helping their children to read, speak or listen and yet because of the nature of their impairment will never be able to reach expected developmental milestones, let alone arbitrary thresholds. What is his vision for these children and their families?