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Young Children: Language Development

Volume 733: debated on Thursday 8 December 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that, by the age of seven, all children with retarded development of their language faculty have been identified and their problems addressed.

My Lords, the revised early years foundation stage framework will emphasise more strongly the importance of communication. We plan to introduce a check on children's progress at age two from September 2012. Revised assessment arrangements will identify more clearly how every child is developing in this important area at age five. There will be a new phonics test at age six. Together, the new arrangements will also promote better information sharing between reception class and year 1 teachers, and with parents.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for that encouraging reply. Does he agree with John Bercow that severe delay in language development is “far more prevalent” than the SLIs of his own recent inquiry—that is, the pathologies that demand professional therapy? Even with the very welcome news of the 2012 programme aimed at toddlers, many thousands will continue to be missed. Will improved Ofsted procedures ensure a primary school regime that is sensitive enough to spot the little boy whose unhappy silence is born not of incapacity but of being starved of normal linguistic stimulus from parent, sibling or carer?

My Lords, I agree with the point underlying the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, about the importance of this. Our combination of measures will include the point that he refers to about making sure that Ofsted inspectors get specific training in identifying the problem that he raises about linguistic development. The number of language therapists is going up as well, and I hope that with our range of measures we will make the kind of progress that he would like. Will we be able to catch every child always and give them the help that they want? That is a noble aspiration, but I cannot put my hand on my heart and say that we will, for obvious reasons.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that for many children the problem is, as the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, outlined, not that they have any native problem but that they live in a severely impoverished environment as far as language is concerned? Anticipating a Question further down the Order Paper, does he agree that it is necessary for the Government and local authorities to do everything possible to promote reading programmes for children, and particularly programmes that allow them to be read to, both in and out of school, which will go a very long way to make better that impoverishment?

My Lords, I agree entirely with the importance of reading and about the crucial role that parents play in that. It is not just a practical point; I cannot think of anything nicer than the bond between parent and child that comes through reading. I also agree that speaking to one's child is part of this as well. I agree with the importance of all those points.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the research that shows that the part of the infant's brain that is responsible for speech and language development is the same part that is most affected by stress and violence when the baby is developing? What is the Government’s policy response to that research?

I am not aware of that research. I am sure my noble friend will be able to send it to me, and I will be very happy to look at it. The basic policy response of the Government on this is to improve the identification, first of all, and the assessment of these problems, to improve the support that we give to teachers and others working in early years settings, to work with voluntary organisations working with parents on this and to try to tackle it across a range of fronts.

Does the Minister agree that this Question is about disabled children, and that disabled children need this sort of linguistic help throughout their educational career, particularly when they come to adolescence and early-adult years? What provision is he ensuring for those colleges and special schools where these disabled young people continue to attempt to develop their skills? I declare an interest as the president of Livability, which has two colleges and a school.

In terms of the range of measures I have outlined in pre-school, school and later, we need to focus on this. I will, if I may, see if I can get some better particulars on the precise point raised by the noble Baroness and will follow up with her at a later date.

My Lords, in this age of technology, is my noble friend sufficiently satisfied that there is proper provision for books in primary schools and for children to be read to by those who truly understand them? In that context, would it be worth while piloting an initiative with local dramatic societies to encourage their members to adopt a school and to go into primary schools so that children can hear the language spoken and read as it should be?

I agree with my noble friend about the importance of books and reading. It is also the case that technology can play a crucial part in helping children to read, particularly some of those who have the greatest problems from a special educational needs point of view. I do not think it is an either/or choice, and I do not think my noble friend was suggesting that. I agree that getting children to have a love of language is vital, and I say that as the child of what in the old days was called a speech and drama teacher. I grew up with that, and I know the way that it can help.

One of the problems of children who have a language disability is the lack of integration, in relation to speech therapists, between the health and education services. What can the Minister do to make that better?

My Lords, one of the consequences of the approach we are developing through the SEN Green Paper is to address precisely the point that the noble Baroness raises: how to integrate health and education services better. As she will know, our ambition is to move to an integrated assessment and a single health and education plan over the next few years.

Would the Minister consider looking at the statutory definition of children with special educational needs to see whether it is wide enough to cover the problem that my noble friend has raised in this Question? Will he also draw to the attention of courts exercising a family jurisdiction that failure to read at a reasonable age is in fact a substantial deprivation and could constitute significant harm within the meaning of the Children Act?

On the point about the definition, there is a well established definition that is fairly broadly drawn, but I will take the point up with my honourable friend the Minister for Children. If there is anything to report, I will come back to the noble Lord.