Driven by a growing concern that children were starting school without the prerequisite language skills to access the curriculum, the Children’s Commissioning Officer for South Staffordshire Children’s Centres commissioned a project to tackle the issue.
Jessica Guerin, a specialist early years Speech and Language Therapist, was appointed to facilitate the ‘Talking to Learn’ pilot project, specifically designed to support the oral language development of young children.
“We had 11 settings participating, including playgroups, nurseries and reception classes where children had previously been highlighted as having low attainment,” she explains. “My first job was to conduct a needs analysis to identify the speech, language and communication needs of children and the training needs of the staff supporting them.
“As a pre-project measure, I drafted a questionnaire for early years practitioners. Less than half felt confident in identifying children with language delays and fewer still knew how to support them. WellComm was an excellent resource to help address both these elements, plus it’s quick, easy and has been extensively trialled.”
WellComm is a speech and language toolkit, specifically designed for children up to six years old. It screens language skills and, if intervention is identified, offers suggestions for fun, play-based activities in the Big Book of Ideas to move children forward.
“I trained entire staff teams on how to screen children using WellComm so the project would be sustainable if staff left. I also conducted a rating of ‘communication friendliness’ on each setting examining the learning environments, opportunities for communication and interaction styles of teaching staff, which allowed me to deliver bespoke training packages for individual settings.”
The project began in earnest in September 2013, with 368 children participating in both pre and post project screening.
WellComm bands children into one of three categories; red means extra support is needed along with a referral to a specialist, amber means extra support and intervention is recommended, and green means no intervention is currently required.
“On the first screening, only one third of children who received a red banding were already known about. It also surprised practitioners to discover that some children they expected to be green, weren’t. Undiscovered, these issues could have greatly hindered those children’s progress.”
Each setting organised small group activities to target specific need with staff routinely dipping into the Big Book of Ideas.
The success of the project has exceeded expectations. “When we rescreened after a term and a half of interventions, we found a 13% drop in those screening red, a 12% drop in those screening amber, and a 25% rise in those screening green.
“We also managed to significantly close the gap for disadvantaged children whose language environment at home might not be as rich as it could be.
“At the start of the project, 66% of children on free school meals screened as red or amber, compared to 45% of those not FSM. On the second screening, just 25% of these children were red or amber, compared to 20% of those not on FSM.”
Staff were re-issued a questionnaire, which showed that more than double now felt confident in identifying children with speech and language difficulties (from 46% to 94%). Those who felt they had sufficient skill and knowledge to support these children had risen from 13% to an impressive 90%.
Jessica comments: “Other settings have expressed an interest in similar projects and the early years pupil premium funding will offer a good opportunity to get involved. WellComm is a cost efficient way of identifying children early and supporting their language needs, and it meets various Ofsted requirements.
“In a very short time span, our results have shown just how effective WellComm can be.”