‘We believe that if we step in during the early days of a child’s life, we can make a real difference’

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When children begin school without basic language and communication skills, they are placed at an immediate disadvantage over their peers that often persists throughout their education and can even last a lifetime.

It is a familiar problem for primary schools, particularly those serving areas of high deprivation, and a number of programmes exist to help these children catch up once they arrive through the school gates.

Staff at Morecambe Bay Primary School, which is located in an area that is in the top three per cent for deprivation in England, felt that rather than playing catch-up, it would be better to try and address the issue before the children begin their school journey.

With SHINE’s support, they are developing a programme that works with young children in the year before they are due to start nursery, engaging and encouraging parents and care givers to interact and communicate with their children in ways that promote key social and emotional skills, language development and communication.

The school’s Business Manager, Trudi Wilkinson, is “very excited” by the programme’s potential, because the problems children face is stark. “Some children in Year One primary school aren’t yet potty trained. Some are unable to hold a pencil,” she says. “In many areas of development, a significant number of children starting their Reception year are 18 months, if not two years, behind their peers when they start at school.”

“When children join our school with language development of an 18-month-old child, rather than a three-year-old, the work we do to support that language acquisition is intensive and demanding on the child and over time the prevalence of this has got progressively higher.”

“We believe that if we step in during the early days of a child’s life, we can make a real difference.”

Headteacher Siobhan Collingwood explained that the new “Get Set…Go” programme will “help improve the quality of a child’s relationships and interactions with their caregivers”.

She added: “It’s based on that serve and return relationship – that interaction between a parent and child.”

‘Serve and return’ sees a child ‘serve’ by reaching out for interaction, with eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, babbling, or touch. A responsive caregiver ‘returns the serve’ by replying, engaging in eye contact, playing peekaboo, or sharing a toy.

“When done right, you’ve got the eye contact, you’ve got the reciprocating relationship, you’ve got the mirroring of each other’s body language – and you can see those neurons being sparked in the child. This is where a caregiver is laying down that that early brain architecture,” she said.

“When children arrive in school without having that early brain architecture, they’re not able to manage social interactions with other people, they haven’t got the language acquisition, they can’t process language. Early reading skills are all based upon phonics and phonetic development, and phonetic development comes from listening to, attuning to language and the rhythm of words.

“For example, parents arriving to drop their child at school focused on their mobile phone, not giving any eye contact to their child or picking their child up and not interacting with them about their day exacerbate the situation: no eye contact, no ‘serve and return’ relationships. Sometimes that has been the basis of their relationship and development all the way through their early years.”

“The result is that you’ve got significant gaps in terms of early language acquisition, which is the first stage of developing reading and writing skills.”

Two years ago, the school introduced some basic play sessions, where a member of staff would model how parents could best interact with their children. The sessions were a success and Trudi worked with the Early Years manager to look at how the concept could be developed.

“Our imagination started to run a bit wild,” says Trudi. “and we came up with a plan to build on this so we could support the development of children who are perhaps not as far ahead as they need to be”

The school successfully applied for funding from SHINE to establish “Get Set…Go”

SHINE’s support will help the school to employ one part-time member of staff who will build best practice and evidence-based interventions to develop communication and language skills.

The programme will see the introduction of free, staffed weekly sessions at school, which include messy play, story time, singing nursery songs, arts and crafts, physical play, vocabulary building, plus theory around how to play, how to talk and how to interact with their environment.

Siobhan explained that interacting with their child in this way can be an unfamiliar process for some parents.

“If parents have not experienced this for themselves when they were young, they feel foolish sitting on the floor and babbling with a child. So, modelling rhymes, playing with children, showing the value of conversation and interaction in a safe environment is key to their success.’

“The weekly sessions provide opportunity to practice new skills so parents and care givers are more able and likely to practice them at home. We will then discuss their experience at the next session before moving onto another element of interaction that builds up a toolkit for parents to access whenever they need it.”

“If you really target those most in need of support, then you could make a significant difference,” Siobhan said.

Our imagination started to run a bit wild, and we came up with a plan to build on this so we could support the development of children who are perhaps not as far ahead as they need to be.

Trudi Wilkinson Business Manager, Morecambe Bay Primary School

The first stage of the programme, which is due to begin in November 2021, will involve community outreach, as the school works with local partners to let families know about the support that will be available.

“What’s happening in Lancashire at the moment, is they’re evolving their early help offer,” said Siobhan. “They’re looking at creating teams around the school clusters, where you have a local area supported by multi-agency and third sector practitioners and a network is created within an area.

“Within that network, I’d be looking to work with health visitors, and the Children and Family Wellbeing Service that are operating out of our area.

“They can help inform us of two-year-olds, that that would benefit from some work around early attachment, early language acquisition and early social skills and we can then carry out a robust assessment with the family to find out what the problems are.

“If we can understand what the opportunities are and understand what the problems are within that family, it will help us to construct our plan around about exactly how we how we deliver a programme that will both have the impact that we want but will also be enjoyable for both the child and parent.”

Siobhan has high hopes for the programme. “It should be transformative, particularly if we can extend it to other schools and nurseries. The hope is that we can learn lessons within our locality and roll out a model good practice. Our aim for this new programme is to support parents to put some of these solid foundations in place”

Mrs Collingwood retired at the end of the academic year. As the new Headteacher, Mrs Taylor is looking forward to seeing the programme develop and is equally passionate about giving our youngest children the best possible start.