How our Language for Life programme is having a systemic impact on Early Years settings in BaNES

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Embarking on a long-term vision to make a real and enduring difference to communities is a daunting prospect. Strategies require continual assessment of progress and adjustment along the way in order to be attained.

At St John’s Foundation we are now four years into our ambitious strategy to significantly reduce the academic attainment gap at Key Stage 2 in Bath and North East Somerset through a broad range of initiatives supported by our Foundation Fund. We have been measuring the progress and impact of our programmes and are now beginning to see real, positive results.

In this article, we throw a spotlight on our work in Early Years settings to support speech and language development so that children in our community are ready to learn when they start school. Our Language for Life programme has seen such positive early results that it is already due to be extended and rolled out at more settings. In fact, our latest impact report, carried out independently, has indicated that the programme is having a systemic impact on the settings it is supporting.

What is Language for Life and why does it matter?

There is significant academic inequality in the region, with BaNES ranking fifth worst in the country for its attainment gap at Key Stage 2. This gap is defined as the difference in academic achievement between students in receipt of pupil premium and those who are not.

St John’s work to level the playing field and reduce this gap which is complex and extends beyond the classroom. The issues that can lead to academic inequalities often begin well before school, which is why our work encompasses projects from pre-birth all the way to secondary school.

Good communication skills strengthen a child’s ability to learn and help them manage their emotions and behaviour. However, under-served children often arrive at school with lower speech and language ability causing them to fall behind, which can have a long-lasting impact on learning.

Through training, the Language for Life (LfL) programme equips Early Years practitioners with the tools they need to identify and support pre-schoolers that are not at the expected language level for their age. Where needed, children are referred to specialists. For those requiring a lower level of support, staff are able to put measures in place to help these children reach their expected level as quickly as possible.

The programme has been running at 23 settings across Bath and North East Somerset (BaNES) and began in the 2021/2022 academic year. Children are screened at the beginning and end of the academic year, and periodically where needed, using a Wellcomm Toolkit which places them in a red, amber or green zone, with those in the red zone requiring specialist support, amber needing some help and green requiring no further support.

At the start of the 2021/2022 academic year, 84 per cent of children assessed at participating settings were identified as needing extra support, including the majority of children in receipt of early years pupil premium (EYPP). By the end of the 2022/2023 year, this figure reduced to just 29 per cent. This dramatic improvement will have a real impact on how these pre-schoolers begin their formal education.

A key success of the programme is that the children in the amber zone, who do not qualify for specialist support, do not fall between the cracks and are identified as needing some additional support, and are receiving it.

What impact is LfL having?

Feedback in our latest impact report strongly suggests that children are increasingly being identified earlier and more accurately with their speech and language needs and that, over time, the proportion of children who are reaching the expected language level for their age by the time they go to school is increasing.

For those children identified as needing specialist support, the number of referrals has increased by 160 per cent over the past two years, suggesting that these children are increasingly receiving the greater level of support they need.

Even for the 29 per cent who had not reached the expected language level by the end of the last academic year, this forms part of the handover process from pre-school to Reception so that their teacher can put necessary arrangements in place from the beginning and prevent them from falling behind.

What’s next for LfL?

With such positive results, we have taken the decision to double the number of Early Years settings benefitting from the LfL programme and on a longer-term basis. This broadening and extending of the programme will also allow time for these practices to become fully embedded at participating settings, so that the traditionally high turnover of staff at Early Years setting does not affect the programme’s ongoing impact.

Whilst there is much more work to be done to level the academic playing field in the region, these early interventions at 23 of our Early Years settings are making a real difference to the children in need of support and positively influencing how they begin their school journey.