North Yorkshire launches pilot to get children school-ready

This story was published 21 October 2020

It is never too early to start talking, singing and reading to babies – that is the message at the heart of a North Yorkshire project to improve speech, language and communication in young children, ready for when they start school.

Norm and Maurice

Evidence shows that children who start school with underdeveloped language and communication abilities have poorer life chances and outcomes; for example they are twice as likely to be unemployed as adults.

A child who is unable to communicate properly with peers or teachers can become frustrated and challenging in his or her behaviour. For this reason the County Council has begun an ambitious pilot programme to improve early language development and tackle school readiness in North Yorkshire.

The pilot, called Grow and Learn, is taking place in East Whitby and Ryedale over the next year.  It will involve a range of targeted interventions by the County Council and its partners in health and early years provision such as nurseries and baby and toddler groups who will work with communities and families.

The pilot, which will include a marketing campaign, is built around the idea of the whole community contributing to a child’s progress and supporting them to be school-ready.  Singing nursery rhymes and other songs, chatting and reading to children away from the distractions of television and phones are key ways of developing their early language.

“These don’t have to be done at a set time – they can be done any time to fit in with daily living”, said Ruth Little, who has been appointed School Readiness Co-ordinator. 

“Chatting with children on the way to nursery, or while making a meal or playing ‘I spy’ on the bus or in the car, sharing a picture book, singing to your bump in ante-natal classes – all contribute to a child’s language development. It’s never too early to start and can involve the whole community and wider family networks.”

The county council is to use a tried and tested common assessment approach so that health and early years’ partners as well as community volunteer groups can recognise speech and language delay in children’s earliest months and years and build in support. 

“A lot of people think there’s no need to talk to a new-born baby but you can’t start early enough,” said County Councillor Janet Sanderson, North Yorkshire’s Executive Member for Children’s Services.

“We want to get the whole community involved through neighbourhood based partnerships to deliver effective local support for families with children aged 0 to 4.  We all have our part to play from midwives through to health visitors, toddler groups, nurseries, families and friends, library volunteers and others to take the opportunity to sing, read, play and above all to talk to children.  We aim to ensure that those children who need support get support.”

The pilot’s key aim is to ensure that children achieve a good level of development (GLD) at the start of their schooling in the Early Years Foundation Stage.  Over the last three years, East Whitby and Ryedale have lagged behind North Yorkshire in the percentage of children reaching GLD – 51.5 per cent for East Whitby and 69 per cent for Ryedale compared to over 71 per cent for the county as a whole. The goal is to close that gap.

The pilot will complement a range of initiatives that have already taken place on the North Yorkshire coast through the Government’s Opportunity Area and through county council funding for the Scarborough Pledge.  Initiatives have included whole families learning nursery rhymes together, a ditch the dummy campaign to encourage children to talk and up to 30 primary schools in the Scarborough District which have employed speech and language therapists in school to give additional timely support to children with language difficulties.

One of the county council’s English advisers, Liz Dyer, has also been seconded to the National Literacy Trust to run the Our Stories campaign which aims to raise literacy levels on the coast through a range of projects and activities to promote reading, writing and storytelling.

Liz is overseeing the Literacy Champions project and is recruiting and training volunteers to create and deliver literacy activities in their local communities. She has enlisted people from all walks of life including a kickboxing trainer and a manager in Scarborough hospital’s special care baby unit who is giving books to parents to read to their premature babies while they are cared for on the unit.

The Book Trust has also provided North Yorkshire County Council Library Service with free resources for children aged 0 to 5, including board and picture books, rhyme sheets and Make Your Own Pet Star craft, to add to their existing collection of books suitable for babies and very young children. Registrars are also now auto-enrolling babies with the library during birth registration.

In East Whitby and Ryedale, the council’s Children and Families workers have already been distributing, “chat, read, sing and play” bags, with activities for children 0 to 5 to families hardest hit by lockdown, to engage them in reading and stories.

The Grow and Learn pilot in East Whitby and Ryedale will also draw on all of this work. “A great deal of good work has already been taking place on the coast,” said Cllr Sanderson.

“Our focus in this pilot will be on the earliest weeks, months and years of a child’s life to stimulate speech and language development. Our ambition in North Yorkshire is to give all children the best start in life and our message at the heart of this campaign will be – if you want the best start it’s never too early to talk to your baby.”

Find ideas on fun, free activities which can be done at home to help get children school ready.

Also look out for the Grow and Learn North Yorkshire County Council social media campaign.