Training targets better early years communication

Charlotte Goddard
Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Norwich invests in Communication Champions training to develop the skills of practitioners in supporting children’s early speech and language development.

Peapod Preschool invested in new resources like this interactive talking wall after taking part in Communication Champions. Picture: Peapod Preschool
Peapod Preschool invested in new resources like this interactive talking wall after taking part in Communication Champions. Picture: Peapod Preschool


Communication Champions


To create a universal approach to improving early speech and language across a range of early years settings


In 2019/20 Norwich Opportunity Area invested £399,144 in early years projects including Communication Champions, Communication Champion Hubs and Community Communication Champions


In 2017 Norwich was ranked 323rd out of 324 local authority districts on the Social Mobility Index, which measures the chances a child from a disadvantaged background will do well at school and get a good job. The proportion of children achieving a “good level of development” when they started school was below the national average while the average Early Years Foundation Stage Profile score for disadvantaged children was significantly below the national average. The city was allocated funding under the government’s Opportunity Area programme and decided to prioritise early speech and language development as one of four areas of investment.


Norwich developed a Communication Champions scheme to improve the skills of early years practitioners in schools and nurseries and to support children with their speech and language development. Schools and settings that signed up to the Communication Champions Network could nominate two or three “communication champions”, who received training through The Communication Trust to develop their practice and become leaders in their own setting.

Four core modules covered topics such as identification and assessment of early speech, language and communication needs, the communication environment, and strategies to support children with communication needs and their families. Three further modules are designed to boost practitioners’ skills and knowledge and support them to devise an action plan for their setting as well as developing their skills as a leader, such as coaching and supporting colleagues, and encouraging others to change their practice.

Trained communication champions were encouraged to deliver training to all staff in their school or nursery to help create a universal and consistent approach across the setting and the city as a whole. They were also given the opportunity to achieve a Level 2 or Level 3 qualification in Early Speech and Language, via Elklan Training, and the chance to go on to complete a Masters degree. All communication champions have access to half-termly network meetings led by five Communication Champion Hubs centred around specific schools and early years settings.

Schools and settings taking part in the scheme also received a copy of the WellComm GL Assessment speech and language toolkit. This includes the Big Book of Ideas to help practitioners provide appropriate follow-up interventions. Using the same assessment tool allows outcomes to be shared at a city-wide level, so future interventions can be targeted at the schools and settings that need it most. This will also give a city-wide indication of how the pandemic and lockdown may have affected children’s development.

“If we give a setting a WellComm toolkit we encourage them to share data with us so we can track progress,” says Ashley Cater, project manager for Norwich Opportunity Area. “We can see what children are coming in with and what support might need to be put in place over the course of the year. Some children had a really positive experience of lockdown and got to spend lots of quality time with parents and family, but there will be children who did not get that quality interaction and missed out in terms of socialisation as well as learning.”

Fran O’Neill, co-manager of Peapod Preschool, took part in the Communication Champions training. “We were not sure what to expect when we joined the course,” she says. “We thought at least it would be interesting and at most that it would help us to understand some of the communication difficulties that we come across as practitioners. What it has done is completely change our practice.”

Immediately following the training, staff were asked to go around the setting and audit it as a communication-friendly space. The preschool redesigned some of its areas to encourage interactions between children and between staff and children. Staff were shown how to carry out the WellComm screening on the children they worked with, identifying those needing additional support.

During the pandemic a further round of Communication Champions training took place online with the core training taking place in the autumn and the leadership training in the spring. “We are working hard to ensure our work reaches as many settings as possible,” says Cater. As well as the Communication Champions training, the hub schools are planning to offer other types of training including Word-Aware, Sign-a-Long, Talk Boost and Attention Autism. This work was planned for early 2021 but has been delayed due to the third lockdown.


At the time of writing, 83 practitioners from 32 settings had completed the core training while 55 from 28 settings had completed the leadership training. Norwich Opportunity Area estimates the scheme will reach 752 practitioners in total across Norfolk, through Communication Champions training others in their setting and online. However, school closures may make this harder to achieve, notes Cater. But she adds: “We are confident that the number, reach and range of communication champions will improve the support children across the area receive to improve their speech, language and communication skills at an early age.”

Communication champions were asked to report their confidence levels in a number of areas both before and after training. All respondents who were either “a little confident” or “not sure” before the training moved to “quite confident” or “very confident” after the training.

Overall, practitioners’ confidence in understanding and identifying communication needs increased from 19 per cent to 85 per cent while confidence in supporting children increased from 18 per cent to 86 per cent. Practitioners’ confidence in understanding their roles and responsibilities increased from 18 per cent to 86 per cent.

Practitioners were also asked to gauge their knowledge levels. Some reported knowledge scores as low as three out of 10 before the training but afterwards all reported a knowledge score of seven or above across all areas. The average knowledge score increased from 6.6 to 8.4.

Practitioners were also asked to rate their leadership skills before and after training. The proportion saying they were “very confident” in their ability to raise awareness about speech, language and communication increased by more than 45 per cent.

Interviews were also carried out by a speech and language adviser from the children’s communication charity I CAN, which was not involved in the project. The interviews show a positive response from communication champions who felt engaged in the process and were clear on how to implement their learning. Challenges highlighted by the champions included difficulty in getting everyone in a setting enthused about the scheme while some settings felt they were already doing what was suggested.


The Department for Education has asked each Opportunity Area to share some of their learning with another part of the county, as part of a twinning scheme.

Norwich has partnered with the Breckland area of Norfolk, comprising Dereham, Swaffham and Thetford, which will take part in funded Virtual Communication Champion Training from this spring. Schools and settings can also request an Early Years WellComm Toolkit, worth £500, subject to completing this training.

Norwich Opportunity Area also plans to create, fund and support a local school or setting to become a new Breckland Communication Hub to champion best practice into the future.

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