Doing simple activities at home such as singing, painting or enjoying a bedtime story with pre-school children at risk of language difficulties could help to boost the economy by up to £1.2billion over the course of their lifetimes.

New research by Pro Bono Economics shows that 14% of three-year-olds in the UK are at risk of starting school with “vulnerable” language skills which could hold them back later in life, increasing their likelihood of unemployment and reduced earnings.

However, access to two extra home learning activities a day could lift these three-year-olds out of the ‘at-risk’ category.

The research, commissioned by KPMG UK in collaboration with the National Literacy Trust and BBC Tiny Happy People, shows how the challenges facing pre-school children are likely to have been exacerbated by the pandemic, with the closure of nurseries and other early education settings coming alongside the added stress faced by parents and children at home.

Among its key findings, the study found that:

  • 116,000 three-year-olds in the UK today, or 14% of this age group, are estimated to be “at risk of vulnerable language skills”.
  • The lifetime cost to the economy of failing to support these children could be up to £327million for each cohort of three-year-olds.
  • This equates to £1.2bn across all pre-school children alive today who are, or may become, “at risk of vulnerable language skills”.
  • But doing one home learning activity a day, such as reading, with three-year-olds could lead to lifetime benefits, including increased earnings of up to £166m per cohort of three-year-olds, while two activities per day could pull them out of the ‘at-risk’ category altogether.

The basic skills that children acquire during the first years of their lives are crucial. One of the most significant of these is children’s ability to speak and understand words – their language skills. In the UK, one in four children who struggle with language aged five do not reach the expected standard in English at the end of primary school. Children with a poor vocabulary at age five are more than twice as likely to be unemployed at age 34.

PBE’s study found that the lifetime cost of not supporting a pre-school child in the ‘at-risk’ category would amount to around £2,800, with more than 95% of these costs likely to be in the form of decreased lifetime earnings for the children.

The remainder would come from costs for Special Educational Needs, involvement in the criminal justice system and demand on mental health services.

Yet high quality learning activities at home, such as reading, playing with letters or singing songs, can make such a difference to improving early years language skills that they can reduce and even eradicate these costs.

This latest research from PBE has helped to quantify the extent of the cost savings and improvements to early years language skills that can be achieved through home learning activities. These home learning activities are more important than ever in the wake of the pandemic.

During the first national lockdown in 2020, daily attendance at early years settings was less than a tenth of the level typically expected, and numbers remained low throughout the remainder of the year. They did not fully recover to more typical levels until spring 2021. 

In a recent Education Endowment Foundation study, 96% of schools surveyed highlighted concerns about the communication and language development of children in autumn 2020.

Matt Whittaker, CEO of Pro Bono Economics, 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.

“Government, businesses, nurseries, parents and social sector organisations like the National Literacy Trust all have a role to play in improving the lives of children at risk of being left behind. With real co-ordinated action across sectors, we can improve children’s futures to the tune of £300million for each cohort of three year olds.”

Jonathan Douglas, CBE, Chief Executive of the National Literacy Trust, 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, Chair of KPMG in the UK, said:

“The education and development of children in their early years shapes their prospects in later life and, as our latest research makes clear, cumulatively it has a material impact on our economy. 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.”  

KPMG UK has a longstanding commitment to supporting literacy among children. In 2015 both KPMG and the National Literacy Trust launched the Vision for Literacy Business Pledge, convening business support to tackle the UK’s low literacy levels. Last year, both organisations launched the ‘Reading the Future’ campaign, donating more than 10,000 books to primary schools in some of the poorest regions of the UK as well as providing literacy-focussed volunteering opportunities across the country. KPMG has also been a member of the BBC’s Tiny Happy People steering group since 2019. This initiative offers parents a suite of simple and fun resources to develop the language and communication skills of their 0-5 year old children.

Download the research