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I CAN's Early Talk Programme:

Independent evaluation of the impact of Early Talk on addressing speech, communication & language needs in Sure Start Children's Centre settings

Dr Judy Whitmarsh, Dr Michael Jopling, Prof Mark Hadfield


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Introduction and Background

This qualitative evaluation of the I Can Early Talk (ET) programme at supportive level was commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), now the Department for Education (DfE). The research was conducted by the Centre for Developmental and Applied Research in Education (CeDARE) at the University of Wolverhampton in 14 Sure Start Children's Centres (children's centres) in England in 2010, focusing on children aged 3 to 4 years old.

I Can

I Can is a national charity which supports the communication of children and young people as well as specialist school provision for children with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). The I Can programme offers interventions for children at differing stages of development: Early Talk (0-5 years), Primary Talk; and Secondary Talk. The Early Talk (ET) intervention has three levels:

  • Supportive (or universal) level;
  • Enhanced;
  • Specialist.

They are defined as follows (ICan, 2006a):

At the supportive level, settings have resources and staff with the skills and knowledge to support all children's communication development, linking with existing speaking and listening curriculum areas. All pre-school settings should aspire to work at this level and show good practice in identification and referral of children with speech, language and communication disabilities.

At the enhanced level, settings have resources and staff with the skills and knowledge to provide an inclusive environment for children with a mild, moderate or transient disability, working collaboratively with local experts, as well as supporting all children's communication development.

The specialist level delivers high-quality integrated speech and language therapy and education for children with the most severe and complex communication disabilities. Services at this level can demonstrate collaborative practice that benefits children with severe, complex and persistent speech and language difficulties/disabilities. The services include a named speech and language therapist (SaLT), specialist teacher and support assistant.

This research study evaluates the implementation, benefits and challenges of the I Can ET programme at the supportive level, focusing exclusively on children's centres.

I Can's Early Talk programme

ET is designed to improve the knowledge and skills of early years' practitioners in order to improve speech language and communication (SLC) outcomes for children 0-5 years. At the supportive level, for accreditation I Can require one full time equivalent senior practitioner to demonstrate that the setting meets I Can standards and competences for:

  • knowledge and understanding of speech, language and communication needs and interaction, including teaching strategies for SLC and supportive daily routines;
  • staff access to training and development;
  • a language-rich environment with appropriate adult-child ratios;
  • child/family welcome and admission to the setting;
  • identification of SLC needs knowledge of referral processes;
  • support for inclusion and cultural diversity;
  • observation and planning; and
  • accommodation, equipment and resourcing.

Mentors from either I Can or the local authority (LA) support the building of a portfolio for the accreditation observations and visit. Accreditation is valid for a three year period during which two reviews of action and practice take place. Accreditors are local early years specialists such as early years advisers and area special educational needs coordinators (SENCOs), trained by I Can (I Can, 2006a). In some LAs, ECaT consultants were also part of the ET training and accreditation team.

The link with children's centres

In May 2007 the Department for Health together with the Department for Education and Skills began a pilot programme with I Can to roll out ET (at the supportive level) to over 200 children's centres in 12 local authorities across England, aimed at improving the SLC skills of children in the early years, which is the focus of this evaluation.

Children's centres provide services for children under the age of five and their families. Under the current offer services include: family support, health care, advice and support for parents, outreach services, childcare and training and employment advice. At the end of July 2010 there were 3,634 children's centres operational in England, providing services for over 2.9 million children under 5 and their families. 1,800 of those children's centres were in the 30 per cent most disadvantaged areas in England. The network of children's centres is a universal service that is accessible to families and highly visible in local communities but which targets support towards the most vulnerable and disadvantaged families. Many children's centres and other early years settings use established communication programmes like I CAN's ET programme and the government's Every Child a Talker (ECaT) initiative to support children's development in early language; enhance practitioners' knowledge, skills and understanding in early language development; and increase parents' understanding of and involvement in children's language development.

Funding ET

LA staff interviewed provided some information about how ET was differently funded in their locality. For example, in one of the LAs interviewed, ET was originally funded by government as part of a pilot and once this funding was no longer available, they took a strategic decision to continue funding language enrichment, using some of the ECaT funding to support the universal implementation of ET. They were not clear about how they would continue to fund SLC when the ECaT resourcing is withdrawn. Some LAs, including two interviewed for this research, had developed a partnership with I Can through piloting new resources and training, which had enabled them to use the resources and buy in accreditation as necessary.

The importance of speech language and communication in early years

Melhuish, Belsky and Leyland (2007: 2) have argued that:

Children growing up in impoverished circumstances are generally exposed to language that differs both qualitatively and quantitatively from the experience of more fortunate children. A social class gradient in language skills is already emerging by the time a child is two years old and the gap widens substantially by the time children reach statutory school age.

Dockrell et al (2008) found that speech, language and communication progress in the early years is linked to outcomes in child cognitive ability, literacy, social and emotional development, and child behaviour. While estimates vary about the level of SLC delay in young children, John Bercow's Report on speech and language provision (2008: 13) stated that:

  • up to 50 per cent of children of some socio-economically disadvantaged populations have less developed SLC skills than their peers on entry to mainstream education;
  • approximately 7 per cent of five year-olds entering school in England (nearly 40,000 children) have significant difficulties with speech and/or language;
  • approximately 1 per cent of five year-olds entering school in England (in 2007, more than 5,500 children) have severe and complex SLCN.

John Bercow's Report (2008) also found evidence of a lack of knowledge and understanding of the primacy of child speech, language and communication needs among national and local policy-makers, commissioners, service providers, practitioners, and sometimes parents and families. In response, the then Government published a series of supportive recommendations and actions (Better Communication, DCSF 2008a) to address the issues identified in the report. In 2008, the Inclusion Development Programme - Supporting children with speech, language and communication needs: Guidance for practitioners in the Early Years Foundation Stage (DCSF 2008b) was published to provide guidance in promoting good practice for SLC in early years' practitioners.

Project specification

Focusing on children's centres, the project specification was to:

  • qualitatively assess the pedagogical benefits of the ET programme;
  • explore its relationship with the ECaT programme;
  • explore how the ET programme meets the needs of differing groups of children; and
  • evaluate the perceptions of associated groups such as parents/carers and local authority members.

The research objectives were to:

  • provide impartial evidence of how the ET programme has influenced staff and enhanced their ability to provide high quality speech; language and communication support for pre-school children in children's centres settings;
  • explore how the ET programme meets the needs of diverse groups of children and investigate its universality;
  • integrate parent/carer and other perceptions of the ET programme in the evaluation;
  • integrate perceptions of the accreditation process of the ET programme and to identify overlaps and gaps in provision;
  • map how the ET programme interlinks with existing programmes of speech, language and communication support in children's centres settings;
  • evaluate how the ET programme meets the recommendations in John Bercow MP's A Rreview of Services for Children and Young People (0-19) with Speech, Language and Communication Needs (2008).