5 Summary and Concluding Remarks
This chapter draws together the analysis presented in the previous chapters to answer the research questions set out in section 1.5. It also suggests some implications for policy makers and others seeking to improve attainment for children in Scotland.
5.2. Does the gap in expressive language ability between children from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds change over the primary school years?
Other research has found that educational inequalities are exacerbated as children move up through the school system (e.g. Sosu and Ellis, 2014; Scottish Government, 2017b). In a Scottish context, we know from previous GUS research (Bradshaw, 2011) that inequalities in expressive language ability exist upon entry to primary school, with less advantaged children already falling behind their more advantaged peers.
If this gap was narrowing, in the analysis carried out here we may have expected to see children in less advantaged circumstances improving at a higher rate than their more advantaged peers. However, as outlined in chapter 4, findings from the analysis do not provide any evidence of this happening. On the contrary, they suggest that children living in higher income households, children in less deprived areas, and children with parent(s) educated to degree level improved more, relative to their peers, than those in the lowest income households, those in the most deprived areas, and those whose parents did not have a degree, respectively.
It is important to note that the analysis carried out here focusses predominantly on identifying factors associated with helping or hindering improvement (see below), rather than on measuring the size of the attainment gap. Nonetheless, the results do seem to suggest, if anything, that inequalities in expressive language ability appear to have widened rather than narrowed over the primary school period.
As demonstrated in chapter 3, the report has shown that the gap between more and less advantaged children seen in previous GUS research persists and is evident as children reach the last years of primary school - irrespective of whether we measure the gap in relation to differences by family income, the level of area deprivation or parental level of education. In line with earlier research (e.g. Bradshaw, 2011), the largest differences in ability were seen in relation to parental education, with smaller but still significant gaps evident according to family income and the level of area deprivation.
Having said this, alongside demonstrating clear inequalities between groups of children, the analysis also showed substantial levels of variation in ability within the social groups considered. These variations indicate that social background, whilst an important factor, is not the only driver influencing language ability. Although being from a disadvantaged social background increases the risk of poorer language skills, it does not equate to poorer language skills for all children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Similarly, coming from a more advantaged background does not guarantee more advanced language development.
5.3. What circumstances and experiences are associated with a relative change in expressive language ability over the primary school years?
As already noted, raising educational attainment is an important priority for the Scottish Government. A key question, then, is what might support children to do (even) better, irrespective of their social background? With an emphasis on expressive language development, this report has identified several characteristics and circumstances which appear to be associated with children showing greater improvement in their language skills relative to their peers.
One of the characteristics found to be associated with a relative change in language ability was the extent to which children were reported as having social, emotional or behavioural difficulties; compared with those with no difficulties, children with higher than average levels of social development difficulties saw a relative decline in ability over the primary school period. Whilst the analysis did not consider different aspects of development in detail, other research has suggested that hyperactivity and conduct problems appear to play a role in relation to educational attainment towards the end of primary school (see e.g. Gregg and Washbrook, 2011). For policy makers and others involved in supporting children's learning, this highlights the need for policies and initiatives aimed at supporting children's educational attainment to take into account other aspects of the child's development too. This finding emphasises the importance of ensuring that children with additional support needs associated with social and behavioural development are fully supported during their primary school education. Encouragingly, this is already to some extent recognised through the emphasis on health and wellbeing in both the National Improvement Framework and CfE.
Looking at broader circumstances, living in a small town or rural was predictive of a relative improvement in language ability. This relationship remained statistically significant even when controlling for other known differences between the children, including parental education and aspects of the home learning environment. It is not clear from the analysis carried out here what may explain this association between living in a small town or rural area and a relative improvement in language ability. However, previous GUS reports, among others, have demonstrated the importance of the quality of children's pre-school setting for their cognitive development up until the start of primary school (Bradshaw et al., 2014; Knudsen et al., 2017; see also Scobie and Scott, 2017 for an overview of the literature). It is not unlikely that the quality of the school setting also has a bearing on children's language development - and that the level of quality varies according to the location of the school. Equally, however, the experiences of children in small town or rural areas may differ in numerous other ways, including on a range of lifestyle measures. Further research would be useful to understand more about the differences in urban and small town/rural experiences which may be important for language development as well as wider attainment.
The report has also demonstrated a positive relationship between frequent reading at home when the child was aged 8 and a relative improvement in language ability over the primary school period. This may simply indicate that children who experience an improvement in their language ability are (or become) more likely to show an interest in reading and are thus more likely to read at home. Nonetheless, home learning activities, including frequent reading in the early years, has previously been shown to be associated with a relative improvement in educational attainment between the ages of 7 and 11 (Gregg and Washbrook, 2011), and previous GUS research showed associations between early parent-child reading and language ability at ages 3 and 5 (Bromley, 2009; Bradshaw, 2011). Along these lines, the relationship seen here appears to suggest that home learning activities - and specifically reading - continue to play a role for children's language development beyond the early years. This provides some support for the rationale behind initiatives such as the Scottish Government's 'Read, Write, Count' campaign which encourages parents of early primary school-aged children to engage in educational activities with their child to support their learning, and Save the Children's 'Read On, Get On' campaign (both initiatives are described in more detail in section 2.2).
It is worth noting that the factors included in our analysis and which emerge as important only explain a limited amount (around 19%) of why some children show greater improvement in their language ability over the primary school period.
5.4. Do the factors associated with a relative change in ability vary according to social background?
The analysis found no indications that the characteristics and circumstances found to be associated with a relative change in expressive language ability varied according to children's social background (measured here through parental level of education).
5.5. Concluding remarks
This report has demonstrated that the gap in language ability between the most and least socio-economically advantaged children evidenced around the time they started school (Bradshaw, 2011) was still very much evident by the time they reached Primary 6. The findings also appear to suggest that inequalities widened over the primary school years, although the analysis undertaken does not allow us to estimate by what margin the gap has widened.
Notably, the report has also demonstrated how, despite clear inequalities in average vocabulary ability among children in the most and least advantaged groups, there was a large amount of variation in ability within socio-economic groups. Some children from disadvantaged backgrounds were doing well relative to their more advantaged peers whilst, conversely, some children in advantaged circumstances were doing less well than their less advantaged peers. What this seems to suggest is that although being from a disadvantaged social background increases the risk of poorer language skills, it does not equate to poorer language skills for all children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Similarly, not all children from more advantaged backgrounds necessarily have better language skills. Thus, support for children should not operate solely on the basis of socio-economic characteristics when considering children and young people's barriers to learning.
Importantly, the report also identified a small number of characteristics and circumstances which were associated with children demonstrating either higher or lower levels of improvement over the primary school period, relative to their peers. These factors only explain a limited amount of why some children show greater improvement in their language ability than others over the primary school period. This means there are a range of additional characteristics and circumstances which must be considered to fully address inequalities in language development. Nevertheless, some factors which were associated with improvement are worth noting.
First, children with above average levels of social, emotional and behavioural difficulties were at a disadvantage - these children were less likely to improve relative to their peers than children with lower levels of difficulties. This finding appears to lend support to efforts and initiatives that take a holistic approach to considering children's attainment which does not narrowly focus on one aspect (such as their language), but sees this as part of their wider development, including their mental health and wellbeing. It also emphasises the importance of ensuring that children with social and behavioural developmental needs are properly supported during their primary education.
The report also showed higher levels of improvement among children in small town and rural areas, even when other known differences such as parental education were taken into account. This seems to suggest that there are systematic differences in children's experiences in and/or outside of education in the areas where they live which affect their language development, and which we were not able to take into account here. These may be, for example, differences in lifestyle, in the quality of the school environment, and/or the quality of teaching. Further research to better understand the drivers of these differences would be useful.
Finally, the report showed higher levels of improvement relative to other children among those who read or looked at books at home every day or almost every day around the time they were 8 years old (for most children, when in Primary 4), irrespective of other known differences such as the parent's level of education. Whilst this may reflect that children who experience an improvement in their language ability develop (more of) an interest in reading, it may also be an indication that home learning activities - and reading in particular - is beneficial for children's language development beyond the early years, thus lending some support to campaigns encouraging parents to continue to engage in home learning activities with their child after they have started school, as well as campaigns aiming to encourage reading among children more widely.