Giving children the best possible start to education in the Early Years

Imagine what it feels like to start school without being able to understand pictures in a book.

Or seeing other children making friends and talking to each other on your first day, while you sit there, unsure how to fit in.

Many disadvantaged children in the North of England feel this way when they start school aged five. That’s because they don’t have the communication and language skills they need to be ready for education. The gap between disadvantaged children’s communication and language skills compared to their better-off peers starts to grow from the age of just two years old. By the time they begin school, the gap can be as big as 15 months1.

I know just how important it is for children to have the best possible opportunities from the Early Years of education. If a child has a negative experience during this formative stage, it can have a huge impact on their outcomes at school, job prospects and their health and wellbeing. I welcome SHINE’s focus on this hugely important phase of education.

Professor Dame Alison Richard SHINE Patron and former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge

Why are these children left behind?

Children learn early communication and language skills by reading, singing, talking and playing. And research shows that when parents get involved in learning at home in the Early Years children achieve more at school2. However, disadvantaged children in the North don’t often have access to the same early opportunities as better-off children.

Many don’t have lots of books or educational toys at home3, or access to high quality pre-school education or childcare4. Also, their parents might not have the skills, resources or confidence to provide learning support at home5.

If a child doesn’t have the communication and language skills that they need aged five, they’ll be less likely to succeed throughout their school education. Research shows that a child’s vocabulary at five is one of the main predictors of GCSE results5. They’re also more likely to suffer social and behavioural problems. In fact, good language skills have been found to reduce the likelihood of poor school attendance7.

Being a parent is one of the most difficult jobs there is and parents and schools are doing their best. However, the truth is, if we want to make a difference in the Early Years, parents and schools need extra support to make sure that children get the best start at the earliest possible stage.

What works?

  • Building best practice in developing communication and language skills in nurseries, schools, and other childcare settings.
  • Developing stronger, more open relationships in the Early Years between parents, teachers, nurseries, childminders, pre-schools and other support networks.
  • Giving parents extra support to build communication and language skills at home.
  • Building communication and language at an early stage as well as other skills such as understanding numbers and developing ‘cultural capital’. This can be done by, for example, introducing children to the performing arts and giving them the opportunity to visit galleries and museums.
  • Supporting collaboration between schools and other Early Years settings.

What funding do we offer?

We provide funding to help schools, charities and other organisations develop projects that can build on the evidence of what works in supporting children and parents in the Early Years. We’re committed to sharing our learning with like-minded organisations so that together we can close the communication and language gap across the North of England.


  1. Social Market Foundation, A Lost Generation, 2017
  2. Social Mobility Commission, The Childhood Origins of Social Mobility: Socio-economic Inequalities and Changing Opportunities, 2016
  3. National Literacy Trust, Read On Get On, 2014
  4. London School of Economics, “Universal” early education: who benefits? Patterns in take-up of the entitlement to free early education among three-year-olds in England, 2018
  5. Social Mobility Commission, The Childhood Origins of Social Mobility: Socio-economic Inequalities and Changing Opportunities, 2016
  6. Time to Talk: Implementing outstanding practice in speech, language and communication, Jean Gross, 2013
  7. National Literacy Trust, Read On Get On, 2014