Speech, Language and Communication Support for Children — [Ms Nadine Dorries in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:11 am on 4th July 2018.

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Photo of Gareth Snell Gareth Snell Labour/Co-operative, Stoke-on-Trent Central 10:11 am, 4th July 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, and thank you for letting me indicate my wish to speak at such a late stage. I congratulate Rebecca Pow on securing this important debate, and on the tenacity with which she has pursued this issue pretty much every time I have been in the Chamber for questions and she has been able to raise it. The perspicacity of her speech demonstrates that she clearly has this issue in her heart; it is not something that she is doing simply because she can.

I want to touch on the Stoke Speaks Out scheme, which my hon. Friend Ruth Smeeth mentioned. It is a wonderful scheme, which Janet Cooper and her team have run for a number of years. The purpose of the scheme is to identify at a very early age young people in Stoke-on-Trent for whom speech and language could be a barrier to their overall development, aspiration and further opportunity.

The team at Stoke Speaks Out do wonderful work, but they have the never-ending problem of constantly having to reinvent the service that they are trying to deliver in order to qualify for new rounds of funding from various different funding agencies and bodies. The reality is that they have a model that works. It has been statistically proven to work, and they have a quantified dataset that shows that their interventions cause improvements. In fact, the baseline for readiness in Stoke-on-Trent schools in 2016 showed that only 35% of our young people were ahead or on track for speech standards, but after intervention by the Stoke Speaks Out team that figure had risen to 54% by July 2017. I think we would all agree that that is a remarkable achievement in such a short period of time for an organisation that was operating on a shoestring.

This is not an issue with our schools. The schools in our city are rated good or outstanding overall. This is a community issue and a societal issue, and it is a problem that is often missed. The most pertinent point that the hon. Member for Taunton Deane made was about early intervention outside school years. We have a disproportionate number of young people in Stoke-on-Trent for whom the 30 hours of nursery provision or pre-school arrangements simply are not available, because of their work arrangements or the hours threshold. That means that a lot of young people go directly from a home situation into a reception class. Headteachers around the constituency consistently tell me that young people benefit from provision in a nursery school setting, and that there is a marked and quantifiable difference in readiness for speech and language skills between children who come into school aged four and those who have been through nursery provision aged three.

The simple fact is that early intervention teams within the community health team cannot pick up every case where somebody may have an issue with speech and learning development. Stark statistics suggest that around half the young people in the constituencies of Stoke-on-Trent North, Stoke-on-Trent South and Stoke-on-Trent Central have up to a 12-month delay in their language skills by the age of three. As the hon. Member for Taunton Deane pointed out, that is a huge impediment to their future success.

Schools also talk to me quite readily about the fact that they struggle to get some parents to engage with at-home reading. That is sometimes down to parents not making the effort—we must be honest about that—but it is also because adult literacy rates in some parts of my constituency mean that parents do not have the confidence to sit down and read with their children from a very young age. Again, that can cause issues around how people parent. The hon. Member for Taunton Deane rightly pointed out that the “digital corner parent”, as we call it in our house, sometimes has a much greater presence in the young person’s life than it should, to the extent that a headteacher in one of my schools said that one of their problems was children coming in with American accents, because they watch American cartoons and TV, and that has become dominant. In some of my local schools, the words “soda” and “elevator” are now more commonly used than “pop” and “lift”, because that is the way that some parents arrange things.