School-age children struggling with talking and understanding words following pandemic, survey finds

Some 1.7 million school-age children in the UK are struggling with talking and understanding words following the pandemic, a new survey by a charity suggests.

Speech and Language UK said the figures showed that nearly one in five primary and secondary school children are at risk of being left behind if they do not get the support they need.

Jane Harris, the charity's chief executive, told Sky News: "Children can struggle with talking and understanding words all the way through their school careers and actually if we don't help them, they're more likely to fall behind in all of the core subjects.

"They're more likely to develop mental health problems, they're more likely to end up in the criminal justice system, so we really need this new government to start taking some serious action to sort of stop this problem at its root".

The charity is running a "Tots Talking" scheme to help parents at Dragonfly Day Nursery in Stratford, East London, and other nurseries in the capital.

Alex Thomas attends with her two-year-old son Jacob, who was born at the start of the first COVID lockdown. She told Sky News she thought that the pandemic had had a negative impact on how his speech and language was developing.

"We didn't do a lot because we couldn't," she said. "We could go to the park, we could go and feed the ducks, but we didn't get to see friends and family and that would help with hearing different conversations and hearing different words, and things like that, but… he didn't get to do that.

"He is very chatty, but I think we take for granted just how many different social situations help communication."

The charity found that 70% of teachers surveyed believed that the government does not prioritise children's speaking and understanding of language.

Speech and Language UK is calling on the government to fund better training for teachers, to help reverse the lingering impact of COVID.

"Children missed out on a lot of social opportunities," said speech and language advisor Denise Amankwah.

"And if parents were working from home, they might not have had the time to interact as often and it was really a stressful time.

"So I think it has had a negative impact but the research that I've read shows that children will catch up if they're given the right tools and early on."

Responding to the survey, a Department for Education spokesperson said: "We are investing nearly £5bn to help children and young people recover from the impact of the pandemic, which includes targeted support for the pupils who need it most through our flagship National Tutoring Programme - with over two million high-quality tutoring courses already started.

"We are also investing £24m in building children's literacy skills as part of our ambition for 90% of children to leave primary school reaching the expected standard in reading, writing and maths by 2030."