Publication - Research and analysis

Growing Up in Scotland: changes in language ability over the primary school years

Published: 29 May 2019

This report investigates the improvement of language ability during the primary school years and identifies factors which appear to help and hinder improvement over this period.

71 page PDF

1.2 MB

71 page PDF

1.2 MB

Growing Up in Scotland: changes in language ability over the primary school years
1 Introduction

71 page PDF

1.2 MB

1 Introduction

1.1. Background and report overview

Improving educational attainment and closing the poverty-related attainment gap has been high on the agenda for policymakers in Scotland for several years. It is also a prominent priority for campaign groups and charities such as Save the Children. This is supported by existing evidence demonstrating that children from poorer families tend to have poorer educational outcomes than those from more affluent families (Sosu and Ellis, 2014).

There is evidence to suggest that one of the key factors driving this attainment gap is the high prevalence of early difficulties in language ability among disadvantaged children (Law et al., 2017). Language ability during the formative years has long been recognised as important for later attainment and outcomes. A considerable body of research has demonstrated that poor early language ability is associated with low educational attainment, in turn affecting individuals' employment prospects and health (Howieson and Iannelli, 2008; Ritchie et al., 2015).

Using Growing Up in Scotland (GUS) data, Bradshaw (2011) examined the gap in language ability among pre-school children in Scotland and identified some of the factors most strongly associated with relative improvement between the ages of 3 and 5. More recent data from GUS, collected at the time the children involved in the study were in Primary 6, offers an opportunity to further explore changes in children's language ability across the primary school years.

This report draws on measures of expressive language ability obtained for the GUS children at the time they were about to or had recently entered primary school (in 2009/10) and at the time they were in Primary 6 (in 2014/15). Building on what is already known about differences in language ability and factors influencing language ability up until entry to primary school, this report examines the gap in expressive vocabulary ability towards the end of primary school period, and identifies factors present over the primary school years which appear to help or hinder children's language development over this period, relative to their peers. Given the link between language ability and attainment, in doing so, the research adds to the evidence base on how to improve attainment for children in Scotland; - understanding more about what might help children improve can help policy makers and others target their efforts and can also point towards avenues for further research.

1.2. The poverty-related attainment gap in Scotland: what do we know?

Previous research from GUS identified a developmental gap among children with different background characteristics even before they had started school (Bradshaw, 2011). The report examined changes in the cognitive ability of children aged 3 and 5 from different social backgrounds. It showed that, at both ages, children from more advantaged households significantly outperformed those from less advantaged households on measures of expressive vocabulary and problem solving, with differences in children's cognitive ability according to their parents' level of education, income and social class. Regarding expressive language, differences in ability by parental education were particularly prominent, with those whose parent(s) had higher qualification levels demonstrating better vocabulary than those whose parent(s) had lower levels or no qualifications. Substantive differences in knowledge of vocabulary were also evident by income and social class. Overall, this report demonstrated that the attainment gap among children in Scotland is already evident by the age of 3 and appears to widen in certain domains of learning by age 5.

There is also evidence to suggest that the gap persists across the school years. For example, the most recent results from the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN)[1] published in 2017, showed that on all four literacy indicators - reading, writing, listening and talking - pupils from the least deprived areas outperformed pupils from the most deprived areas, at all stages (Scottish Government, 2017a). For example, the proportion of Primary 4 children who were assessed as doing well or very well in reading was 67% in the most deprived areas compared with 85% in the least deprived areas. Similar patterns were evident for writing, listening and talking.

Existing research has also considered the attainment of school leavers, based on data from the pupil census and the Scottish Qualifications Authority. The most recent data show a gap in attainment between leavers from the most and least deprived areas in Scotland (Scottish Government, 2016). In 2015/16, 99% of leavers from the 20% least deprived areas (using the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD)) obtained a qualification at SCQF level 4[2] or above compared with 93% of leavers from the 20% most deprived areas. The gap is larger at SCQF level 6 or above[3], with 81% of leavers from the 20% least deprived areas obtaining a qualification at this level or above, compared with 43% from the 20% most deprived areas.

Thus, existing research suggests that across a range of different measures and at different stages of childhood and adolescence, attainment and ability in Scotland is stratified by deprivation, with children from less advantaged backgrounds achieving poorer educational outcomes than those from more advantaged backgrounds. This report builds on and adds to this evidence through examining children's expressive language development over the primary school years.

1.3. Closing the poverty-related attainment gap in Scotland: the policy context

The Scottish Government has introduced a range of policies, strategies and frameworks designed to close the poverty-related attainment gap. Most significant of these is the Scottish Attainment Challenge which was launched in 2015. The Scottish Attainment Challenge is a national initiative which aims to reduce inequity by improving educational outcomes for children living in Scotland's most disadvantaged communities. It has a focus on supporting schools and local authorities to improve outcomes in literacy and numeracy, as well as health and wellbeing. There is a specific emphasis on those living in the 20% most deprived areas in Scotland. The Scottish Attainment Challenge comprises a range of initiatives, including extra money for schools in deprived areas and councils, an Attainment Advisor in every local authority to help schools and teachers and an online 'hub' to help educationalists find examples of good practice.

A key element of the Scottish Attainment Challenge is the £750 million Attainment Scotland Fund, a targeted initiative focused on supporting pupils in the local authorities of Scotland with the highest concentrations of deprivation. The nine 'Challenge Authorities' are Glasgow, Dundee, Inverclyde, West Dunbartonshire, North Ayrshire, Clackmannanshire, North Lanarkshire, East Ayrshire and Renfrewshire. Pupil Equity Funding is also provided through the Attainment Scotland Fund and allocated directly to schools based on the estimated number of children and young people in P1-S3 registered for free school meals under the national eligibility criteria[4]. The central aim of the Scottish Attainment Challenge is to achieve long term educational improvement and opportunities for children living in areas of multiple deprivation.

In addition, the National Improvement Framework for Scottish education (Scottish Government, 2017b) is designed to secure educational improvement in Scotland. Key aims of this policy include improving attainment in literacy and numeracy and closing the gap between the most and least disadvantaged children, as well as improving children and young people's health, wellbeing and employability skills. The National Improvement Framework sets out six key drivers for improvement. These include school leadership; teacher professionalism; parental engagement; assessment of children's progress; school improvement and performance information. Parental engagement is highlighted as a key factor to help children achieve the highest standards whilst reducing inequity and closing the attainment gap, with evidence from the annual statutory review of the National Improvement Framework in 2016 showing that family learning helps close the attainment gap through breaking the intergenerational cycles of deprivation and low attainment.

The Scottish Attainment Challenge and the National Improvement Framework are underpinned by a broader range of Scottish Government initiatives and programmes which, though not specifically focused on weakening the link between poverty and low educational attainment, could enable educational establishments to address the impact of disadvantage on educational attainment.

These include Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). Introduced in 2006, CfE is Scotland's curriculum for learners aged 3-18 which sets out the aims, principles and approaches that should underpin learning for those aged 3 to 18 years in Scotland. CfE has two phases: the broad general education (from the early years to the end of S3) and the senior phase (S4 to S6).

CfE offers several important themes to enhance the delivery of education to disadvantaged groups (Scottish Government, 2008). For example, literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing are recognised as being particularly important and the responsibility of all staff. In addition, CfE promotes flexibility, personalisation and choice, and challenges schools and their partners to support children to become 'successful learners', 'confident individuals', 'responsible citizens' and 'effective contributors'.

Sosu and Ellis (2014) argue that if CfE is tailored to meet the educational needs of children from deprived households, it could be a powerful force for closing the poverty-related attainment gap in Scotland. However, the dual aim of closing the gap and at the same time raising the bar for all children has led to concerns that privileged students, parents, schools and communities will be more likely to make progress, due to the considerable discretion which can be exercised in the implementation of CfE (OECD, 2015).

Getting it right for every child (GIRFEC) - the national approach to improving the wellbeing of children and young people in Scotland (Scottish Government, 2018) - also addresses issues of disadvantage and educational attainment. GIRFEC is designed to ensure that all children and young people are offered the help that may support them to be successful in life, including at school. The framework focuses attention on how schools, working with families and their partners, might better meet the needs of all learners, including those from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. The wellbeing indicators (Safe, Healthy, Active, Nurtured, Achieving, Respected, Responsible and Included) have encouraged a focus on disadvantaged groups. GIRFEC also promotes support for individual children and young people through a staged intervention mechanism, which provides a framework for additional targeted support to meet their wellbeing needs. Although not specifically designed to close the poverty-related attainment gap, consideration of a child's or young person's wellbeing includes taking account of environmental circumstances like living in poverty and it has been argued that these measures have the potential to prompt schools and others to address the educational disparities that arise from economic disadvantage (Sosu and Ellis, 2014).

1.4. About the Growing Up in Scotland study (GUS)

GUS is a longitudinal research study which tracks the lives of thousands of children and their families in Scotland from the early years, through childhood and beyond. The main aim of the study is to provide new information to support policy-making in Scotland, but it is also intended to provide a resource for practitioners, academics, the voluntary sector and parents.

To date, the study has collected information about three nationally representative cohorts of children: a child cohort and two birth cohorts. Altogether, information has been collected on around 14,000 children and families in Scotland.

This report draws on data collected at the time children in the first GUS birth cohort were about to or had recently entered primary school (2009/10) and at the time they were in Primary 6 (2014/15). More detailed information about the data is provided in section 2.1.

1.5. Research questions

Taking a similar approach to the previous GUS report examining changes in cognitive ability in the pre-school years (Bradshaw, 2011), this report focuses on changes in language ability over the primary school years. It addresses the following questions:

1. Does the gap in expressive language ability between children from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds change over the primary school years?

2. What circumstances and experiences are associated with a relative change in expressive language ability over the primary school years?

3. Do the factors associated with a relative change in ability vary according to social background?

The gap in expressive language ability (according to income, area deprivation and parental education) among children in Primary 6, towards the end of primary school, is considered in chapter 3.

Chapter 4 explores what experiences and circumstances are associated with a relative improvement or decline in expressive language ability over the primary school period, and whether this differs according to parental education.

Finally, chapter 5 draws together key findings from the previous chapters and suggests what implications they have for policy makers and others seeking to improve language development for children in Scotland.