Universities and schools collaborating to support speech & language in the early years

Norah Minshall

By Norah Minshall

Norah Minshall was brought up in Stoke, she has been working as an early years teacher and school leader for many years. She now works at Thrive at Five as an Early Years Development Lead. Thrive at Five is a charity that supports organisations to work together and to use the evidence of “what works” so more children can reach their potential in their early years. Here Norah describes an innovative partnership with Staffordshire University, which is working to improve children’s language and communication skills in Stoke-on-Trent.

In 2021, in the wake of the COVID pandemic and in response to its impact on children, every state school with a Reception class in England could apply for Government-funded training and resources through an early year’s catch-up programme. The aim was to support pupils with vital communication skills.

Delivered by the Nuffield Foundation, the Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI) is a programme proven to be effective in. improving Reception-age children’s early language, communication, and speech skills – particularly those who need the most support.

"Studies of communication and language approaches consistently show positive benefits for young children’s learning, including their spoken language skills, their expressive vocabulary, and their early reading skills. On average, children who are involved in communication and language approaches make seven months’ additional progress over the course of a year."

Good early language and communication skills also helps young children self-regulate and self-control, enabling them to negotiate interactions with others.

However, children starting school with poor language skills were a concern in Stoke on Trent long before the pandemic. Year after year, in one of the schools I’ve worked in, more than 70% of the children starting reception class were assessed as being below the age expected levels in communication & language.

Many school staff had received excellent training from Stoke Speaks Out (which was set up in 2004 to tackle poor language in Stoke) and they had the resources to provide several proven interventions. Unfortunately, the schools simply did not have the staff capacity to deliver them to the large number of children that were assessed as needing them.

My experience was not unique. When Thrive at Five started working in Stoke, we brought Foundation Stage Leaders from 7 schools together to discuss the issues they were facing. One school reported that 90% of reception aged children were not at the age expected levels for speech and language last September, and they all disclosed that they were struggling to deliver intervention programmes to all the children who needed them.

With the scale of need in our schools it is impossible for one teacher and a Teaching Assistant to deliver.

Could collaboration solve the problem?

Staffordshire University, who run early childhood and teacher training courses, were keen to work with Thrive at Five in Stoke, and we came together to see if we could collaborate to help solve the school capacity problem. Could Staffordshire University students be recruited and trained to work alongside schools to deliver the NELI program to all the children who needed it? Would our seven project schools be willing to work with us and the university to make this work?

Dr Jo Basford, Course Director/Associate Professor (Education), recognised that we could give students the opportunity to gain valuable classroom experience while supporting our schools to deliver the NELI program.

In Autumn 2022 we invited schools to join the project and Staffordshire University set about recruiting students. We were overwhelmed by the response. All seven schools signed up to the project and more than 25 students volunteered to take part.

The students came from education courses at Staffs Uni – some were education and early childhood studies students and others were on teacher training courses. All the students were volunteering to work above and beyond the course they signed up to do. They committed two afternoons per week and undertook the training in their own time.

Overcoming early challenges

We’ve got a brilliant group of enthusiastic students and enthusiastic schools who have been full of praise for the quality of student delivery, but as we tested our initiative, we also had some concerns. First time implementation of innovative programmes is never straight forward, and we have learned a lot.

Would it be possible for the programme to be delivered effectively by students who were only in school a couple of afternoons per week?

The guidance on TeachNELI.org states that staff can share delivery to a group of children if communication is good between them. So, our students set up ways to ensure they communicated with their partner students. This meant different students could share delivery of the intervention to the same groups of children.

How would we get all the students trained?

Oxford Education are very supportive and have provided all our students and their tutors with links to access the NELI online training. TeachNELI.org have supported us with extra resources free of charge.

How would we capture all the learning and fully evaluate our project?

Chris Wellings, Director of Learning and Impact at Thrive at Five has worked tirelessly to ensure the project is evaluated.

Who and how could we quality assure the delivery of the programmes?

Some of the most experienced staff in our project schools have collaborated to devise a checklist that can be used by students to peer assess each other and to inform supportive observations.

Would schools have to spend a lot of time supporting students? Would this impact on the time they need with the children in their classes?

Thrive at Five are recruiting and employing 2 additional, experienced Reception staff to support the project, which will be a shared resource across the seven schools. It has taken time to put this extra support in place, but we are almost there.

In short, early challenges have related to students balancing their workload as this was a volunteer placement, obtaining resources and dealing with the administration. These concerns have been addressed.

The Timing

We were keen for all the children, assessed as needing the programme, to start the program in January 2023, allowing enough time to roll out the programme in the school year. As we got going at the end of 2022, we knew we were being very ambitious with our timelines and getting 25 students trained and placed into schools was a much lengthier process than we imagined. It quickly became clear that there was a risk the
school year would come to an end before the 20-week NELI program could be delivered.

Our first issue was navigating the induction policies across our seven schools. A first step before students could start their placements, after training, some schools took several weeks before they completed the process. Others had students in and are delivering the programmes quickly.

Our seven schools all had different experiences of delivering the NELI program, some had experienced staff, some had never used NELI before. This meant that some of our schools needed to train their own staff.

We required each school to assess every child in Reception using a Language Screen. In some schools we didn’t have access to tablets to administer the assessments, in others GDPR checks had to be carried out before the children’s details could be uploaded onto the assessment tool.

How’s it going now?

We managed to get all our children assessed and the data collected by March 2023. Students are in all our schools delivering or supporting delivery of the programme. We have committed to ensuring all the children who need it will receive the full 20-week programme, even if we need to complete it at the beginning of the next academic year.

The response from school staff, students and children has been overwhelmingly positive. The children clearly enjoy spending time with the students, and they view the program as a special time for them. Students are keen to share their learning with their teachers and school staff. In one of our partner schools, one student was working with a child with selective mutism.

The child had not spoken to any of her teachers during her nursery year. However, after working with a student delivering NELI with her for a month, she started to talk to the student and the other children in the group. This had a huge impact on the child – and student involved – and we also had a positive response from the school and family.

Many of the students have already commented on being able to see the impact on children.

I have had the privilege of observing the many students delivering the program. I have trained early years staff over many years and in my opinion, the students are doing a fantastic job. Many are developing skills and experience that are not just supporting the children’s language development but their own professional development.

Two students who were doing an education studies course have said that their in-school experience has led to them pursuing a teaching career. One teaching student is hoping to secure a position at their placement school. One student’s interest into language development has prompted them to become a speech therapist.

Several students have said they have a better understanding of how to support children language skills. Several students have offered to mentor other students next year. Students have fed back that the extra commitment has been difficult to manage. We have suffered a high dropout rate due to this and back-filled the support for children where this has happened. But the great news is that Staffordshire University are now including this initiative as part of their course, offering students micro-credentials so that it is no longer a voluntary position but instead embedded within their education and teacher training degrees.

We know that our project needs further evaluation and adapting to maximise its impact. But this approach has the potential to be replicated by other schools and universities across the country and could be used not just to scale up the reach of NELI but many other forms of student-delivered support. This could ensure that every child, gets the help they need.

This project would not have been possible without the collaboration and support of Chris Hulme and Joe Lowe, Oxford Education, and Dr Jo Basford Course Director/Associate Professor (Education), Staffordshire University. With thanks to them all for working in close partnership with us on this.
More information and resources on NELI can be found below: