Babies in Scotland’s poorest communities twice as likely to struggle with language


By Patience Magill

Babies living in Scotland’s poorest communities are twice as likely to have language difficulties or delays as those from better off households, according to Save the Children.

John Swinney: taking a lead on educational attainment
John Swinney: taking a lead on educational attainment

The charity says that those who struggle during those early stages may never catch up. It is calling for bold action in Deputy First Minister John Swinney’s coming education plan, to tackle the impact of poverty on children’s language skills.

Save the Children adds that speech and language is ‘the single biggest issue’ affecting child development in Scotland, with at least 7000 of our youngest children struggling with their first words. The most recent Scottish Government figures from 27-30 month child health checks show that difficulties with speech are the ‘early warning sign’ that has so far been overlooked.


It says that figures like these expose how Scotland’s ‘attainment gap’ begins long before children ever set foot in a classroom. The gap in early language skills is generally acknowledged to be the starting point for a wider divide in attainment in Scotland’s schools.

Other findings include:

That this is an issue in every single part of Scotland – early language difficulties are the biggest developmental hurdle for every local authority

In all but five local areas, at least 1 in 10 children under 3 have issues with their speech and language development

In 10 of Scotland’s 32 local authorities, this number rises to 1 in 7 children

Save the Children’s research shows that children who struggle with speech and language in their early years are often still behind their peers in key literacy skills at the age 11. In Scotland, one in five children growing up in poverty leaves primary school not reading well.

It is a challenge that the Scottish Government has committed to addressing. The Deputy First Minister intends to publish his education plan within the next few weeks, with a central aim to close the attainment gap.


Save the Children policy manager Vicky Crichton said:

“This education plan is a golden opportunity for the government to stop the attainment gap in its tracks and take some truly ambitious steps at the start of a new parliament.

“At the moment, poverty is damaging too many children’s education before they have even set foot in a classroom. If we’re serious about closing the gap we must seize the chance to take action – not just in our schools, but to support children’s learning in their first few months and years.

“Children need to start school with more than just new shoes and a school bag – they also need to have benefitted from high quality learning and play experiences that give them the language skills to thrive.”

The charity wants action to be taken so that by the end of this Parliament all children start school equipped to learn. They are calling for an increase in the numbers of qualified teachers and graduates with speech and language expertise working in Scotland’s nurseries, along with training for the wider workforce.



Valerie Crichton added: “Over the last year, material deprivation has increased for families with children living in poverty in Scotland, which makes it even harder for the poorest families to provide a healthy and stimulating environment at home.

“Whilst the majority of children in Scotland are coming along well, there are a significant number of children who are showing signs of struggling before they have even reached their third birthday.

“Children develop best when they have been exposed to lots of words from a young age – talk, play, stories and nursery rhymes. These language skills are the essential building blocks that children need to understand the world around them, to learn to read, to thrive at school and to go on to achieve their full potential.

Mr Swinney’s plan must look well beyond the school gates and include bold and ambitious actions to close this gap in the early years, and at its most crucial point.”