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Using shops to improve language skills sees Stratford MP under fire

A new government scheme backed by Stratford MP Nadhim Zahawi has been branded as ‘ridiculous’ by those who campaigned against cuts to children’s centre services in 2017.

One of the new measures involves training retail staff in children's speech and communication to help improve young people's language skills.

Shoe retailer Clarks is one of those who have already pledged their support to the idea.

According to the Department for Education this is all part of its mission to tackle concerning rates of early literacy and communication among disadvantaged families.

However the idea has been heavily criticised by both campaigners and rival politicians who consider it to be an attempt to transfer much-needed public services into the private sector.

In Warwickshire especially it has hit a nerve given that extensive cuts to children’s centre services are due to come into effect later this year.

On the face of it the policy appears to be encouraging businesses to provide some of the services children’s centres usually do.

Vicki Behm, who fought hard against the children’s centre cuts in Warwickshire, said: “What a ludicrous scheme, retail staff can’t possibly have the skills to address the complex needs of so many children. It’s good a good thing for more people to be aware of issues involving language development, but to expect something like this to make a big difference to improving literacy rates is ridiculous.

“There’s also the issue that staff in Clarks or WHSmith won’t be able to get to many of those affected, who need the most help, because these children simply won’t be going into those shops. This is simply another attempt by the Tories to push public services into the private sector, what’s next are we going to be training staff in Clarks to be NHS surgeons?

“The problem is that there is not enough money going into public services and we will be feeling the effects of the cuts to children’s centre services for decades.”

Warwick and Leamington MP Matt Western, who also spoke out against last year’s cuts, said: “Once again, the Government is seeking to avoid responsibility, in this case for cuts to education and in particular for early years.

“Children’s Centres provide vital services to support children’s early development yet the County Council has been forced to close two thirds of these (26 out of 39) due to Government induced Budget cuts. What the Government is proposing here is piecemeal and will do little to tackle low literacy rates and counteract the chronic underfunding of early years education services.”

When the Herald approached the Stratford MP for a comment we were sent a departmental press release which included a quote from Mr Zahawi as children and families minister.

He said: “We want to create a generation of confident learners who can read and communicate effectively – these are vital skills that children need to grasp from the earliest opportunity in order to succeed.

“There’s no instruction manual for being a parent. For some who left school a long time ago or who have low confidence in their own abilities, it can be overwhelming to know where to start with supporting children’s learning at home before they start school - and we know that too many children are arriving at school already behind their peers.

“By working with a growing number of businesses, charities and experts, we’re making it easier for parents to kickstart this early development – helping to take forward our national mission to boost children’s early development. New projects are being set up all over the country and our expert panel will create trusted tools that parents can be confident using, so that every child develops the skills they need to thrive.”

A spokesperson from the Department for Education later added: “Children’s centres can play an important role in supporting families, but it’s right local councils decide how to organise and provide the services for families in their areas, because they are best placed to understand how to meet the local needs – whether this is through children’s centre buildings or delivering services in different ways.”

Other ideas being put forward to increase literacy include using technology experts to advise parents on the best apps to support learning and promoting bookswaps in supermarkets.

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