Contribution of health visitors is beyond words

Derren Hayes
Monday, July 29, 2019

Just a few days before being replaced by Gavin Williamson as Education Secretary, Damian Hinds launched the Hungry Little Minds campaign - a three-year initiative to help parents improve the early literacy and language skills of pre-school children.

Hungry Little Minds is the latest in a growing list of government programmes aimed at tackling the "word gap". Underpinning these programmes is research showing children living in disadvantaged homes hear up to 30 million fewer words - total rather than unique words - than their peers, impeding the development of language and communication skills.

As early education expert James Hempsall describes, many of the programmes tackling the word gap involve practitioners working with pre-school children. For example, TALK Derby, an Opportunity Area programme, is training childcare staff and childminders to identify speech, language and communication (SLC) needs early so that support can be put in place; while Public Health England is funding a scheme to train 1,000 health visitors in new techniques to support children's SLC development.

Cheryll Adams, executive director of the Institute of Health Visiting, which is delivering the training, says health visitors are vital in the early identification of children's health needs. However, the number of health visitors in England fell by a quarter between October 2015 - when local authorities took over commissioning of 0-5 children's public health services - and July 2018, largely due to the funding crisis in local government. Department for Education data shows the proportion of five-year-olds classed as "school ready" rose from 51 to 71 per cent between 2013 and 2018. This was achieved at a time when the government invested in boosting health visitor numbers. If the workforce continues to shrink, it could undermine efforts to improve school readiness further.

Increasing the role of health visiting in children's language development is supported by the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF), which last year called for greater investment so that health visitors can provide intensive home support for children in low-income families. This is already being delivered in Blackpool, where children receive eight health visitor checks, two of which are developmental-focused to assess school readiness.

Williamson needs to listen to the advice of the EIF and work with other government departments to lobby the Treasury for more funding for councils to invest in health visiting services. It will pay back on the investment many times over.

Derren Hayes, editor, Children & Young People Now

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