Primary school teachers have raised concerns that language and communication among their students has been affected as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Emerging findings from an ongoing Education Endowment Foundation-funded study, which aims to examine the impact of Covid-19 disruption on primary school starters, suggest that language and communication are particular areas of concern for teachers this year.
As a result, two-fifths of primary schools in England have signed up to participate in a programme to support four- and five-year-olds whose early language and literacy development has been most affected by the pandemic. This will mean that 62,000 reception-age pupils in 6,672 schools will receive the Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI) this school year.
Professor Becky Francis, CEO of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “Whilst reported concerns around school starters’ language and communication development are of course worrying, it is reassuring to know that the NELI programme is available to meet pupils’ needs.
“In these challenging times, the success of the intervention constitutes an encouraging reminder that supporting pupils to overcome the detrimental impacts of the pandemic is not only possible, but very much underway,” she added.
Developed by world-leading researchers at the Universities of Oxford, Sheffield and York, NELI is regarded as the most well-evidenced early years language programme available to schools in England.
NELI involves scripted individual and small-group language teaching sessions delivered by a trained teaching assistant or early years educator to children identified as being in need of targeted language support. So far, close to 20,000 teaching assistants and teachers have received online training designed by the University of Oxford and provided via FutureLearn.com, the leading social learning platform, to deliver the NELI programme to pupils.
The programme has been robustly tested through several trials and the most recent, involving 193 schools, found that children who received NELI made, on average, +3 months of additional progress in oral language skills compared to children who did not receive NELI.
The Department for Education has offered the programme to state-funded schools with Reception pupils at no cost due to the disruption to schooling caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The EEF is managing the scale-up, which has been funded under the DfE’s wider COVID-recovery efforts. The DfE has also announced additional funding to expand the rollout to more schools for the 2021/22 school year, to be delivered by the Nuffield Foundation.
In the Autumn Term 2020, 96% of the 57 participating schools reported being ‘very concerned’ or ‘quite concerned’ about their pupils’ language and communication skills due to the disruptions to education as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The research, undertaken by the University of York, the Education Policy Institute, and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, suggests that targeted language support provided by NELI would be an important part of Covid-19 recovery.
The NELI intervention is planned across 20 weeks and it had been anticipated to begin in January, however this had to be delayed until schools re-opened fully after the second period of partial closures. Schools are encouraged to extend delivery into the next academic year - when pupils progress into Year 1 - to complete the full programme.
Josh Hillman, Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation said: “We encourage all schools who have not yet done so to apply to receive NELI, which will help them to address the communication and language development needs of children starting school later this year.
“Specialist training for teaching assistants to deliver NELI is free and can be accessed online, enabling schools to provide targeted intervention for children who are most in need of additional support in their oral language development.
“The earlier we can provide this support for children, the greater the opportunity to prevent them from falling behind in developing the foundations of language and literacy,” he added.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders' union NAHT, said: “The findings of this report are concerning but unsurprising. A reduction in social interaction with both peers and other adults during lockdown will inevitably had an impact on some children’s speech and language development.
“Schools know only too well the importance of supporting young children with their speech and language development, and they are expert in creating language-rich environments. However, the scale of the challenge must not be underestimated and the government must commit to fully supporting this work and to a multi-year funding boost for schools to enable them to help all pupils recover from the effects of lockdown. Equally, the government must properly invest in nurseries and pre-school provision so that all children get the support they need as early as possible.
"Schools also need access to specialist services such as speech and language therapists to provide timely support to those children with the most significant needs. Ongoing cuts to those services has meant that too many young children are left without the vital specialist support they need,” Mr Whiteman concluded.