What policy-makers can learn from Incey Wincey Spider

Mary Powell-Chandler says early language skills need to reach children in poverty.

As soon as I found out that I was to have a child (a long time ago), I dashed out and bought, not teeny pastel-coloured clothes, nor a mobile to hang over a yet-to-be purchased cot nor any number of cute cuddly toys – no, I couldn’t wait to buy some hard, brightly-coloured board books. My love of reading had started as a child and I couldn’t wait to introduce my child to the world of possibilities that lie inside an unopened book. In my arms, she looked on as I turned the pages; I held her hand and traced the route of Teddy going around the garden and helped her recreate Incey Wincey spider’s journey to the top of the spout. She grew to love these rhymes and stories and as the months and years went by, needed less and less input from me. At 18 months, she received the news that she was to become a ‘big sister’ via a story called The New Baby. Books were central to both girls’ lives from birth but little did I know then, that these early, fun experiences were making a significant difference to their futures.

Now, as a member of The Read On. Get On. campaign  in Wales – a coalition of national literacy and communication organisations, charities, libraries, teaching unions and publishing agencies including Save the Children – all has become clear. Our most recent report provides evidence that speech and language in the early years, before a child starts school, is a key factor in their ability to read and thus to learn. The Ready to Read report shows how good quality support for children and parents in the early years can help improve language skills and ensure children start school ready and able to learn. The UK-wide coalition has set a goal to get every child reading well by age 11 in 2025 and in Wales we have set an interim goal to ensure that every child in Wales has good language skills by the time they start school by 2010.

Evidence presented in the Ready to Read report explains why children’s early language skills are so important for learning to read. We also show that children living in poverty are at the greatest risk of falling behind. Depressingly, one in four children growing up in poverty in Wales leave primary school unable to read well. This helps explain the persistent educational gap in Wales that each year, prevents thousands of our poorest children from fulfilling their potential. The evidence shows that without an increased commitment to children’s early language development, particularly for the poorest children, we will never achieve our goal of all children leaving primary school being able to read well. Boosting children’s early language skills is critical to narrowing the attainment gap and improving the life chances of our poorest children.

Poverty affects children’s learning in different ways. Struggling on a low income creates stress and anxiety which can make it harder for parents to engage with their children’s learning. A low income can limit the material resources available to support child’s early learning.

Our new analysis from the Millennium Cohort Study shows children in Wales who live in persistent poverty are twice as likely to score below average in vocabulary scores at age 5 as their better off peers, and that these patterns persist as children grow up. The analysis has found that children living in poverty who had poor language skills at age 5 are much more likely to still be behind at age 11 than their better off peers. Children who read well by 11 do better at school, get better exam results and do better in the workplace.

This is why the Read On. Get On. campaign, whilst recognising the excellent initiatives introduced by the Welsh Government such as Flying Start, Time to Read and Education begins at Home, is calling for further investment in the early years workforce and support for parents during those critical, life-defining years. Specifically, we are asking for an increased focus on early language skills to reach all children, but particularly those living in poverty.

We all recognise that there is only a finite amount of resource available in Wales but surely increased investment in our children makes the most sense of all. Just like Incey Wincey spider climbing and re-climbing the spout, we cannot be put off by the challenges we encounter, but together strive to build a country where all children achieve their full potential.

Mary Powell-Chandler is Head of Save the Children in Wales.

7 thoughts on “What policy-makers can learn from Incey Wincey Spider

  1. An important article Mary and a dreadful indictment of our society where huge numbers of our children are written off through all kinds of reasons including parental neglect but then most vulnerable and disadvantaged children are further handicapped especially In Wales by the education system and its policy makers.

    It’s a no brainier that as you say the “early language skills are so important for learning to read and evidence shows that children living in poverty are at the greatest risk of falling behind” is bang on and this must be dealt with and prioritised in Welsh education.

    Having said this give a thought to children in West Wales (Anglesey, Gwynedd and of recent Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire) where education system prioritises Welsh language and where children from the age of 4 are immersed into a language that to most is a foreign language and whilst eventually they’ll get grips with Welsh they lose out a great deal and many cases will end up on the proverbial rubbish heap.

    These children will not be inspired by books in Welsh language especially where this language is not their home language or the language of their social circles so end up further handicapped and damaged.

    Perhaps high time for the Welsh Government and Estyn to be honest and rethink the Welsh language imposition in education and elsewhere and in particular the corrosive and damaging implications on most non-Welsh speaking kids irrespective if poor or not and eliminate policies that do not work and in many ways act as a straight jacket undermining progress!?

    Provide linguistic freedom of choice for all Welsh parents and create schools where educational excellence can be pursued through the natural language of parents and their children.

  2. The correlation between poverty and reduced literacy seems, on your evidence, strong but poverty in itself is not an insurmountable problem for engaged parents. Books are cheap, free access to books through public libraries and schools, though under attack, is still excellent. Children, once the reading habit is established, just devour books. The issue is surely one of parental education. It costs nothing but time to read to a child every day, to talk to it and develop spoken language skills. Of course that takes more effort than sitting a child passively in front of a £600 plasma screen TV for 5 hrs a day and is particularly difficult if parents are simply not around.

    Your website says we have 200,000 children in poverty in Wales so if 1 in 4 are not making the grade on leaving primary school we have a rolling 50,000 child problem.

    I note from the MyLocalSchool stats that 88.4% of all children across Wales are currently achieving the required standard at KS2 in English and the trend is consistently positive so that is a bit of good news.

  3. I read the first paragraph with a certain nostalgia, It was my mother reciting poems, listen with mother on the radio, our first shared books; and then parents, having created the spark, feeding the love of “the story” with Christmas albums and the library ticket.

    We continued a similar path with our daughter, not massive differences until she met new friends with the “playstation”, early teenage years, then the titanic struggle against multi-media that excludes all opposition. Fortunately my daughter returned to the story, but will she remember her early years and have the energy…

    My view on this matter is pessimistic; I’m sure that poverty is an influence, however, in a society that leaves its children with child-minders, we have lost the mothers knee where we share a story and build literacy, and this lost knee crosses the boundaries between affluence and poverty.

  4. All that you say is true Mary, I recollect case discussions where everyone is struggling to avoid the word “hopeless”. We usually settle on “depressing” but when a child reaches 11 and cannot read but still needs to be taught the national curriculum, when the parent (usually singular) has been involved and found to also be unable to read and where the various social agencies have also been involved and haven’t come up with any strategy “depressing” is the mildest word that can be used.

    Thankfully that is a worse case scenario but frequently up to half of a year cohort finishing primary is six months or more behind the expected reading age for 11 year old pupils. Many are 18 months behind.

    The problem is, as you rightly point out, most evident amongst pupils from deprived backgrounds in 2014 87% of pupils who were not eligible for free school meals reached the age appropriate level for language literacy and communication at the end of the foundation stage. For free school meals eligible pupils the figure was

  5. …..(continued) 75% (the figure for non EFSM should read 90%, sorry). The same pattern repeats itself at each key stage; KS2, 92% for non FSM pupils against 76% for FSM pupils; KS3,90% versus 70%.

    The disadvantage suffered in the very earliest years rarely rights itself. Deprivation is not the actual cause of the problem however, it’s a secondary symptom of poor education levels amongst parents. Low levels of education lead to poorly paid, insecure work or no work at all and that is the origin of deprivation amongst school children and the cycle of low achievement. Where parents are well educated but poor (perhaps due to illness or incapacity) even children who have challenging conditions at home quite frequently attain at the highest levels.

    There was an experiment in the US where a significant sum of money was given to poor families each year to see if the link between poverty and poor attainment amongst deprived children could be broken in this way. It wasn’t.

  6. J Jones’ observations are sadly borne out by a lot of evidence. However there is also an additional level of challenge that for many children from very non academic backgrounds who do do well at school, this success is no guarantee of ultimately securing fulfilling well paid work as they struggle to complete tertiary or further education; the need for parental support of different types remains strong well beyond KS2 and for higher achieving pupils (from non academic backgrounds) the further they go from their parents’ experiences the harder it is for parents to provide appropriate support. The experience in some parts of south Wales has also been that while colleges and universities are very quick to welcome poorer students into their ranks – as it ticks “access” boxes, – providing the longer term support they may need is less of a priority.

  7. Hmm good point Chris.

    The middle class is adept at opening doors for the offspring of their peers at the expense of equally able but less well connected candidates. It means that education alone doesn’t guarantee that you fulfil your potential. This is a bigger problem in England than Wales as they have a proportionally bigger middle class perpetuated by burgeoning private education sector.

    My unscientific observation working across the border of this is that with equivalent candidates, the Scots and NI job applicants do better at making it to the first hurdle than the Welsh because their education system is perceived to be so different from the (numerically dominant) English system that the interviewer doesn’t really understand the qualifications. They take the plunge and call in the man/woman, maybe out of curiosity, and once the candidate is in front of them they have a fighting chance. Closer parity between Wales/England means that a short list selection is done on simple results so it easier to exclude.

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