Home learning activities with preschool children ‘could boost economy by £1.2bn’

Reading bedtime stories, painting, and singing at home with young children at risk of language difficulties could help boost the economy by up to £1.2 billion over the course of their lifetimes, a report suggests.

One in seven (14%) three-year-olds in the UK – around 116,000 children – is estimated to be at risk of “vulnerable” early language skills which could hold them back later in life, increasing their likelihood of unemployment and reduced earnings, according to research by Pro Bono Economics.

But the analysis, commissioned by KPMG UK and the National Literacy Trust (NLT), found that two extra home learning activities a day can lift preschool children out of the “at-risk” category.

The study suggests that the potential lifetime cost to the economy of failing to support these children “at risk of vulnerable language skills” could be in the region of £327 million for each cohort of three-year-olds.

The lifetime costs could reach £1.2 billion for those in the four cohorts of preschool children who are, or may become, at risk of language difficulties.

But doing one home learning activity a day – like reading, playing with letters or singing songs – with three-year-olds could lead to lifetime benefits of up to £166 million for each cohort, while two activities a day could pull them out of the “at-risk” category altogether, the analysis suggests.

The report, seen by the PA news agency, suggests there is a “significant risk that these costs will have been further exacerbated” due to the pandemic.

It adds that the closure of many early years settings, and the added stresses on parents and children, mean the pandemic is likely to have had a negative impact on the skill formation of preschool children.

Researchers defined children at risk of vulnerable language skills as those who may struggle with language skills in the future but are unlikely to suffer from a persistent language disorder and are unlikely to require specialist support to achieve this improvement.

They analysed data from the Department for Education’s Study of Early Education and Development (Seed) to identify the gap in language skills for this cohort of children.

To estimate the long-term economic costs, researchers linked this gap in language skills to the lifetime monetary value of not improving their early language skills.

Overall, the analysis suggests that not improving the early language skills of at-risk children could potentially cost £2,829 per child over their lifetime.

Pro Bono Economics chief executive Matt Whittaker said: “Those first years of our children’s lives are crucial, and it’s remarkable how relatively small activities can make a real difference to their life chances.

“With the pandemic disrupting too many children’s development, addressing the challenge of language and reading skills is essential in order to prevent short-term impacts becoming long-term problems.”

Jonathan Douglas, chief executive of the NLT, said: “A child’s early language and communication skills are not just the foundation of their literacy, but influence a lifetime of social, emotional and economic outcomes as well.

“This report is a timely call to action to all who can support parents in the early years as more support for early parenting helps pave the way to a more prosperous and fairer society.”

Bina Mehta, chairwoman of KPMG in the UK, said: “The pandemic has exacerbated the number of children showing poor early language skills, with those from disadvantaged backgrounds likely to have been disproportionately affected.

“If businesses are serious about improving social mobility and boosting our economy, then supporting early years education and development is a critical place to start. By doing so we can lay the foundation for a more prosperous and fairer economy.”