Improving the language skills of young children across Lancashire is set to be one of the priorities of an effort to boost their level of development by the time they are five years old.
Figures reveal that the county has slipped below the national average for the expected developmental standard which a child should achieve before they leave their reception year at school. That level has improved both locally and nationally over the last three years - but at a slower rate in Lancashire.
In 2018, 72 percent of children across the country met the government-set standard, while the figure in Lancashire was 69.2 percent.
Language, literacy and communication skills form a key part of the developmental assessment and the county has slipped more than six percentage points behind its best-performing counterpart - with just over 70 percent of children achieving the expected language standard in 2018.
“The early years of life are incredibly important [for language development] - and a child may start [nursery] at two or three years of age or not start [in a formal setting] until reception,” Paul Duckworth, Lancashire County Council’s head of education, quality and performance told a meeting of the authority’s education scrutiny committee.
“We’re working with the Department for Education on a project called “Easy Peasy”, which is an app that parents log into which promotes learning at home.”
County Hall has also developed targeted local programmes in some disadvantaged areas, designed to promote “school readiness”.
Committee member County Cllr Peter Steen said the county’s maintained nursery schools - whose financial future is currently uncertain - had a key role to play in improving standards.
“From conversations I have had with primary school teachers, I know the good work the nursery schools do. It’s always the children [who have attended them] that have [good language skills] - so by putting funds into nurseries, the government will save money at primary level,” County Cllr Steen said.
The government has set a target to halve, by 2028, the percentage of children leaving reception year without the communication, language and literacy skills which they need to thrive.
FUNDED CHILDCARE LEVEL FALLS BACK
In common with the rest of the country, there has been a reduction in Lancashire in the number of eligible families taking up the government’s offer of 15 hours per week of free childcare for two-year-olds living in low income households. The rate has dropped from 72 percent to 68 percent over the last twelve months.
Members of Lancashire County Council’s education scrutiny committee heard that part of the reason for the drop was thought to be the introduction of an upper earnings limit for the entitlement for families on Universal Credit.
However, parental choice is also likely to be playing a part, along with language barriers in some parts of the county, councillors were told.
“We write to parents who are eligible for places,” Mel Foster, the authority’s free early education manager said.
“Some of the feedback we get from parents is that there are certain settings which they would like their children to go to, but they are full - however, as a whole, there are places available.
“In Hyndburn, Nelson and Brierfield, [low take-up] has primarily been a cultural issue - so we work with [the NHS] and the Department for Work and Pensions so that parents are getting the message [about free childcare] every time they walk through the door [of a service].
Take-up is much stronger for the broader entitlement to 30 hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds - 97 percent of eligible three-year-olds and 100 percent of four-year-olds across Lancashire were receiving their free hours in January 2019.