A recent call to be a witness on an enquiry being carried out by the Centre for Social Justice [CSJ] (13.11.13) on the significance of early oral language development led me to reflect on what exactly social justice had to do with communication.
But first a few words on social justice itself. The term ‘social justice’ implies fairness and mutual obligation in society: that we are responsible for one another, and that we should ensure that all have equal chances to succeed in life. In societies where life chances are not distributed equally (such as the UK), this implies redistribution of opportunities, although the shape that such redistribution should take remains contested http://www.thersa.org/action-research-centre/
In view of this it is slightly strange that the CSJ was set up by MP Ian Duncan Smith (IDS) erstwhile leader of the Conservative party. The CSJ appears to have its roots in IDS’ reflections about poverty and society after a visit to Easterhouse, a large Glasgow housing estate but the CSJ became a right leaning think tank trying to think creatively about how to address society’s social ills. A number of reports followed, often written in collaboration with labour MP Graham Allen. One of the features of their analyses was a focus on the relationship between poverty and it’s effect not only on the family but more specifically on child development, interestingly at a time when similar conclusions were being drawn by Labour’s Frank Field and health inequalities guru David Marmot. IDS’ conclusions led him to question the perverse incentives of the current benefit system and to propose the universal benefit which is being piloted in various areas in England and has been the topic of much debate in recent months. Explicit in the CSJ reports was that the implications of poverty in a family, hard enough for those concerned, was grossly unfair to the child. The child was being made to pay for the sins of the parent, as it were. While others have been content to describe the cycle of disadvantage, IDS and the CSJ sought change and framed the argument as a matter of justice rather than blaming indigent, work shy parents or teenage mothers ..etc. etc. common enough narratives in current modern political discourse. The CSJ carries out enquiries (CSJ 2013,2014) and has become very interested in child development in general, and child language in particular, as a marker of inequality – hence my reason for giving evidence to the enquiry.
Language development and the way that we regard it is one of those phenomena that tells us something about the way we see children and perhaps less directly how we see society and human as a species. Its importance has been accentuated over the last century or so during which employment (one index of social attainment) has changed substantially in post industrial societies (Ruben 2000). This, in turn, raises questions about why we identify children with language difficulties. It is true that parents or teachers may raise concerns but there are lots of things that we could identify but we don’t ask society to pay for. The important issue is whether these difficulties are likely to have long term consequences and whether these can be ameliorated. It is fairly clear that the odds of long term negative outcomes are certainly raised, even if this does not always play out at an individual level. Data suggest that school entry language delays, in conjunction with a variety of social factors, can have effects on literacy, mental health and employment, well into adulthood. As a result, oral language development has moved into the foreground to become not just an advantage but a prerequisite for success and, as such, has become a marker of social justice.
These are some suggestions to enhance social justice for this group of children.
1. Better understanding
- We know lots about what we should recommend to support child development in the early years but this needs to be better disseminated;
- Oral language difficulties may exist, on their own, but they rarely come without baggage. Behaviour and mental health difficulties often co-occur, exacerbating social inequalities because of the effect they have on adjustment in school and home. Again the mechanisms for this are not well understood;
- We need to know more about the long term implications of poor early oral language, for example in terms of social mobility. Are there jobs that people with low language skills cannot do or even within white collar jobs are there jobs where there is a communication ceiling..beyond which promotion is impossible?
2. Better provision
- Speech and language therapy is an important part of the mix and we need to ensure that services are not adversely affected under current economic stringencies. But speech and language therapists cannot “own” early language difficulties. There are simply too many children involved. It is critical that understanding of oral language is central to the training of teachers who all too often confuse oral language with literacy;
- We need to be careful in assuming that early is always better WITHOUT good data to show this. It should not be a simple trade off – more early intervention means less support later on;
- We need to consider the implications of oral language across the life course. There has been lots of emphasis on the early years but provision and support in secondary and further education and beyond is nugatory.
The CSJ will be bringing out another report in the middle of 2014, hopefully discussing the importance of early language and what can be done about it. The intention is that this will then feed into the development of the 2015 party manifestoes. Keep an eye out for oral language in the manifestoes as they start to emerge. And, for those at Newcastle University, don’t forget that the Newcastle Institute for Social Renewal has a competition going at the moment for ideas for the party manifestoes. Try lobbying your MP and let’s see if we can get oral language further up the policy agenda.
Centre for Social Justice (2013) REQUIRES IMPROVEMENT: The causes of educational failure London: Centre for Social Justice http://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/UserStorage/pdf/Pdf%20reports/requires.pdf
Ruben, R. J. (2000), Redefining the Survival of the Fittest: Communication Disorders in the 21st Century. The Laryngoscope, 110: 241. doi: 10.1097/00005537-200002010-00010.