Oxford Arts Blog

Oxford’s professor of Environmental Economics comes across more like...well an economist or a successful entrepreneur (he laughs) rather than a clichéd protestor

Cameron Hepburn is not an environmentalist from central casting. In person, Oxford’s professor of Environmental Economics comes across more like...well an economist or a successful entrepreneur (he laughs), rather than a clichéd protestor, set on gluing himself to an inanimate object. But this is what makes him all the more convincing and persuasive. When he says, we need to take action now, the automatic response is: how not why.

The economist is under no illusion about the structural challenges and is sought out by governments around the world, looking to meet challenging Net Zero targets and ‘build back better’

As someone who has been at the cutting edge of environmental issues since the early 2000s, before the term ‘climate change’ was common currency, Professor Hepburn is insistent about the need to move away from a carbon-based economic model. But the economist is under no illusion about the structural challenges and is sought out by governments around the world, looking to meet challenging Net Zero targets and ‘build back better’.

The youthful professor is both reassuring and realistic, pointing out economic upheaval will take place over decades, as old industries are replaced by new jobs and, he maintains, technological change means the costs of conversion are coming down – a welcome thought for both countries and consumers.

Talking as the Government announces he is to lead a multi-million-pound project investigating greenhouse gas capture, Professor Hepburn is adamant the time is past for delay and that we now have to cut our carbon emissions, while actively removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.  

It’s not an either-or-situation. We have to reduce emissions as fast as possible, and scale up our capacity to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere

Professor Cameron Hepburn

The ambitious project, announced today, encompasses leading environmental scientists at universities around the UK – and funds research into ways of removing the gases and store them, permanently. 

‘There’s a lot of very clever science underway in the UK and around the world,’ says Professor Hepburn. ‘Scientists have developed machines to capture carbon dioxide from the air and bury it underground.  Others are restoring ecosystems to lock up carbon in trees, plants, and soils.  Still others are studying ways to accelerate the natural processes by which minerals in rocks absorb carbon dioxide from the air. ‘

‘It’s all incredibly interesting and potentially vital,’ he says.


It might seem a strange comment for someone who started their career working for Shell, the oil giant. But, says Professor Hepburn, his early encounter with fossil fuels convinced him that this was ‘even then a sunset industry’ and it began him on the road to his environmental work.

‘It’s important that we look at the societal impact as well as the political and structural impacts,' he says. ‘We have delayed for long enough now that we have no choice but to explore ways to get greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere that also help us achieve other social and environmental goals.’

Professor Hepburn heads the project’s Hub, which will coordinate the work, and look into ways of scaling up the research to economic viability, as well as making it possible in the political and legal framework. Oxford and its other university partners will provide the ‘central brain’, he says, his team will gather evidence, verify research and provide data.

The young Cameron lived with his parents and siblings in an idyllic environment in the Australian outback, with lots of camping expeditions and life in the outdoors. It sounds more Skippy than Crocodile Dundee

It was a path which began in the outback of Australia, where the young Cameron lived with his parents and siblings in an idyllic environment with lots of camping expeditions and life in the outdoors. It sounds more Skippy than Crocodile Dundee, with Mr Hepburn senior nicknamed ‘Leafy’ Leigh Hepburn because of his interest in nature.

Cameron won a scholarship to a leading school in Melbourne, where his fellow alumni include many leading Australians – including a host of army chiefs, bishops and...Barry Humphries (not a contemporary).  

Cameron won a scholarship to a leading school in Melbourne, where his fellow alumni include many leading Australians

From there, he went to Melbourne University, where the young scholar was awarded degrees in Engineering and Law.  But, after the brush with Shell and then some law firms, where he was engaged designing complex legal contracts for the financing of power plants, the graduate knew, ‘It was very clear that this was not how things should be done’.

Changing tack, he applied for a Rhodes scholarship, to come to Oxford to take a masters in Economics. He intended to be in the UK for two years, 21 years later, now married with three children, he is still here, having taken a doctorate in Economics, become a researcher, then a senior researcher, now the Professor of Environmental Economics. Having changed track twice, he knew he did not want a conventional economics career.

‘Environmental economics was virtually invisible,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want to spend my time looking at the money supply...I was much more interested in thinking about the impact of climate change.’

Environmental economics was virtually invisible... I didn’t want to spend my time looking at the money supply...I was much more interested in thinking about the impact of climate change

Professor Hepburn

Laughing, he adds, ‘I thought it was worthy of a career – and so here I am.’

'Climate change was on the scientific agenda for decades before climate concerns became widespread and governments around the world were pledging to reduce emissions, environmentalism is now mainstream.'

He adds, 'It’s a shame Australia didn’t begin the transition [from a carbon-based economy] back in the 1990s, we could have done things more steadily. The later you leave it, the more difficult some things become, as they have to be done faster.’

But he says, ‘The good thing is that everyone has woken up. We have delayed long enough.’

There should be no need for mass redundancies, to meet the UN’s 2050 Net Zero target. Older industry jobs will be more than replaced by others – and it does not have to happen all at once

Professor Hepburn

However, Professor Hepburn does not underestimate the challenges and the costs of transitioning away from fossil fuels- and the need to reassure. He maintains there should be no need for mass redundancies, to meet the UN’s 2050 Net Zero target. Older industry jobs will be more than replaced by others – and it does not have to happen all at once.

While stressing there will be costs of going Net Zero for some countries, businesses and individuals, Professor Hepburn anticipates that new technologies will emerge and existing ones will become much cheaper. He says, ‘Smarter, cleaner tech is getting better and cheaper all the time...it won't be long before it would be crazy for anyone to buy a fossil fuel-driven car.’

He admits that domestic heating is a ‘big challenge’, with most UK homes reliant on fossil fuel energy. But he maintains we will not be sitting at home shivering in 20 years, technological progress is already happening which will assist in making the switch to clean heating cheaper.  Overall, he thinks the savings on cheaper electricity and transport will help offset the costs of investment on clean heating.

Smarter, cleaner tech is getting better and cheaper all the time...it won't be long before it would be crazy for anyone to buy a fossil fuel-driven car

Professor Hepburn

The same goes, he hopes, for air transport, with short haul flights potentially driven by battery-powered electric motors, and longer haul adopting hydrogen and ammonia solutions.

According to Professor Hepburn, though, we do not need to wait for technology to start the process of improving sustainability; nature based solutions can be deployed right now. ‘Leafy’ Leigh was right, it seems.  Professor Hepburn says, ‘Trees are the oldest tech in the world....nature has been doing this [taking carbon out of the atmosphere] for millennia].’

He is optimistic about the future, despite the delays in getting started, and points to the fact that countries and businesses around the world have given Net Zero pledges, to slash emissions, which cover two thirds of international GDP.  But will the fine words translate into action? Many critics focus on whether the ‘big polluters’ are going to take action and whether vested interests will take this lying down. Professor Hepburn stresses, ‘The credibility of such targets is vital.’


There will be winners and losers in the transition [think sunset industries]. It needs to be a just transition...but the transition will create many more jobs than it destroys. There will be net gains both to economies and workers.

And he maintains key carbon emitters should accelerate towards Net Zero targets, as the technology becomes more affordable. But Professor Hepburn admits, ‘There will be winners and losers in the transition [think sunset industries]. It needs to be a just transition...but the transition will create many more jobs than it destroys. There will be net gains both to economies and workers.’

The reality of transition to sustainable power, like many new technologies in the past, will be far less difficult than is currently apparent

Professor Hepburn

As an economist, he says, economies have transitioned all the time. When there has been seismic shifts in technology, they have adjusted naturally, ‘The economy can be quite flexible but we need transition schemes for reskilling.’

He adds, ‘It is critical that financial and economic ministries are looking at this – and they are.’

Reassuringly, says Professor Hepburn, the reality of transition to sustainable power, like many new technologies in the past, will be far less difficult than is currently apparent.

‘Clean electricity is already cheaper in a lot of parts of the world, solar and wind is cheaper and electric vehicles are simpler and easier to maintain.’

Who’d be a petrol-head? ‘Within a few decades, he wonders, I think we will look back at cars spewing out toxins into our lungs as even worse than horses defecating in the middle of our streets.’

And yet, and yet, what can the UK do, or other European countries, when we are not responsible for most of the world’s emissions? Professor Hepburn is typically enthusiastic: Britain has been leading on climate science for a decade

And yet, and yet, what can the UK do, or other European countries, when we are not responsible for most of the world’s emissions?

Professor Hepburn is typically enthusiastic, ‘Britain has been leading on climate science for a decade. The whole concept of Net Zero arguably came from Oxford, as did Net Zero investment finance and Net Zero economics.’

Pointing out the greenhouse gas project could deliver technology for the world, he insists, ‘These are ideas that matter, drivers of change. The UK is important for wider science and theories. It’s the first large country which had a formal architecture with the government's committee on climate change and the net zero legislation – it’s not just a theory for the UK.’

And, says Professor Hepburn, Oxford’s environment and structure has been key in propelling environmental research up the agenda.

 ‘It’s a pretty unique place,’ he says. ‘The college system means we meet people from other disciplines all the time [which facilitates and drives critical inter-disciplinary cooperation].  You can find yourself sitting next to a classicist or a specialist in Physics.’

Also, he says, the Oxford Martin School, the university’s multi-disciplinary research organisation, drives key research, involving experts from every discipline and has led to environmental collaboration on pressing international topics.  And, he notes, that the Smith School, which he directs, has interdisciplinary research right at the heart of the mission.

While we stand on the cusp of massive change, Professor Hepburn says, he is hopeful, ‘2019 may have been the peak year for fossil fuels...the global community can no longer deny it makes sense to transition. Why sink more money into gas and coal, when the future is clean?’

See £30 million official backing for Oxford-led greenhouse gas removal programme | 欧洲杯滚球平台

The argument that fast-paced changes to social media platforms and devices have made them more harmful for adolescent mental health in the past decade is, therefore, not strongly supported by current data

Parents will worry, that is what parents do. But, according to Oxford Internet Institute researcher, Dr Matti Vuorre, the evidence base suggesting a negative impact of the use of technology on teenagers’ mental health is thin - at best.

Dr Vuorre and colleagues Dr Amy Orben and Professor Andy Przybylski have been studying the associations between technology use and adolescent mental health – and, according to new research, it is not all bad news, not at all.

It is popularly believed that new technology, particularly social media, is responsible for declining mental health among young people and a range of other social ills. But, says Dr Vuorre, concerns of this type are not new, nor are they well justified by current data.

Parents used to warn children that their eyes would turn square, if they watched too much television, and earlier generations were convinced listening to radio crime dramas...would inspire lives of crime

Parents used to warn children that their eyes would turn square, if they watched too much television, and earlier generations were convinced that listening to radio crime dramas, such as Dick Tracy (special agent) would inspire young people to turn to lives of crime. 

Then, as now, says Dr Vuorre, the popular idea does not appear to be supported by hard evidence. The research, published last night,  used data from three large surveys to look into the lives of more than 400,000 young people in the UK and US.

In these surveys, young people report on their personal use of technology and various mental health-related issues. Using this large data set, the team of researchers set about investigating the associations between adolescents’ technology use and mental health problems, and whether they have increased over time.

According to Dr Vuorre, these survey responses do not establish a smoking gun link between the use of technology and mental health issues, nor do they show that technologies have become more harmful over time.

‘We did find some limited associations between social media use and emotional problems, for instance,’ he says. ‘But it is hard to know why they are associated. It could be a number of factors [perhaps people with problems spend more time on social media seeking peer support?]. Furthermore, there was very little evidence to suggest those associations have increased over time.’

In fact, according to the new research, ‘Technology engagement had become less strongly associated with depression in the past decade, but social-media use had become more strongly associated with emotional problems.’

The study concludes, ‘The argument that fast-paced changes to social media platforms and devices have made them more harmful for adolescent mental health in the past decade is, therefore, not strongly supported by current data either.’

These results don’t mean that technology is all good for teens, or all bad, or getting worse for teenagers or not...it is difficult  conclusively to determine the roles of technologies in young people’s lives

‘These results don’t mean that technology is all good for teens, or all bad, or getting worse for teenagers or not. Even with some of the larger data sets available to scientists, it is difficult  conclusively to determine the roles of technologies in young people’s lives, and how their impacts might change over time.’

Dr Vuorre says. ‘Scientists are working hard on these questions, but their work is made more difficult by the fact that most of the data collected on online behaviours remains hidden in technology companies’ data warehouses.’

He adds, ‘We need more transparent research collaborations between independent researchers and technology companies. Before we do, we are generally in the dark.’

The Redentore began as a feast – held on the day of the Feast of the Most Holy Redeemer – to give thanks for the end of the terrible plague of 1576, which killed 50,000 people,

When will this all be over? As the number of COVID-related infections, hospitalisations and deaths reported in the UK continues to fall, the chorus grows ever louder for the abandonment of restrictions on everyday activity.

Summer holidays in Spain, crowded sporting arenas and nightclubbing, are held out as examples of normal life to which we can look forward. But, for many, it is the more mundane life they miss: meeting friends and relations indoors, having a coffee in a coffee shop, going to the library or cinema.

But the question of when the pandemic (or epidemic) is over is not as simple as it might appear.  It is a medical question, but determining what is an epidemic and when it has ended is also a political and social question.

In the past, epidemics have ended in a variety of ways...sometimes the illness has gone but sometimes people have learned to live with it

In the past, epidemics have ended in a variety of ways – some in which the illness has gone and others in which it has not, but people have learned to live with it.

Oxford Historian Dr Erica Charters is leading a project looking at these complex questions. Some 40 researchers, from more than a dozen universities across the academic spectrum, have come together to study - ‘How Epidemics End’.

The team includes experts in a variety of past events which have wreaked havoc around the world – from the plague to TB to HIV/AIDs to cholera.. And this week the team is releasing a series of videos discussing what has happened in past epidemics.  The first three videos compare how different researchers study cholera and its ending, explaining the cholera epidemics which devastated countries including England in the 19th century, but more recently, Yemen.  

‘We have asked the question: how did epidemics end?’ says Dr Charters. ‘We have brought together longer term reflections on this and looked at the different ways of distinguishing the end – looking at epidemiological and mathematical models alongside political and social questions.

’But there is no one answer. Everyone wants certainty and answers but it is not just a decision about a disease but a political decision: what will people live with?’

Everyone wants certainty and answers but it is not just a decision about a disease but a political decision: what will people live with?

Dr Erica Charters

In January, Dr Charters and Dr Kristin Heitman wrote, ‘Detailed research on past epidemics has demonstrated that they do not end suddenly; indeed, only rarely do the diseases in question actually end.’

 Dr Charters points out, ‘In the past, epidemics have ended in one of three ways.

‘People begin to live with it [influenza]. It moves to another part of the world [the plague] or it is managed through medical treatment and no longer seen as an epidemic in that part of the world [HIV/AIDs].’

As the numbers of infections continue to fall in the UK, although other countries are still experiencing severe illness, COVID appears to follow the pattern. But Dr Charters warns against ‘false endings’. And the historian, who specialises in the history of medicine, points out that some diseases may be considered an epidemic in some parts of the world but may be common elsewhere,  ‘Malaria is endemic in large parts of Africa but if there were cases in England, it would cause alarm.’

People begin to live with it [influenza]. It moves to another part of the world [the plague] or it is managed through medical treatment and no longer seen as an epidemic in that part of the world [HIV/AIDs]

It is this sense of alarm which underpins the pandemic (which is an epidemic on a global scale).  The January paper maintains, ‘Epidemics—like the recurring narratives they produce—throw a society's confusion, fears, and anxieties into high relief.’

It continues, ‘When communities are thrown into panic and turmoil by the outbreak of a new disease, when medical committees are convened and central governments spring into action, epidemics are understood in clear biological terms.... But at the end stages of epidemics, the disease is regarded through the filter of political, social, and economic dislocation—dislocations that have deepened as the epidemic progressed—articulating the processes by which policy decisions are debated and implemented, and the accommodations between scientific models and human behaviour.’

The World Health Organisation categorises it as a public health emergency of international concern. But, from a global perspective, it means different things to different groups at different times – not just as the disease spreads around the world but because within the same country, different groups will experience a disease differently.

So the end will also be different for different peoples. Dr Charters says, ‘It is unlikely that there will be a single end date.’

There may be biological markers, suggesting a decline in infections or excess deaths. People tried to track these in 17th century England, when the number of plague deaths fell and the population returned to London – rather prematurely.

But, says Dr Charters, in general, the end of epidemics can be traced to ‘when people resume social practices’. She adds, ‘When the city gates opened and groups returned.’

In general, the end of epidemics can be traced to when people resume social practices. When the city gates opened and groups returned

And she notes, there is also a falling off of evidence – as people stop recording the impact of the disease and go back to their previous occupations. 

According to the article ‘How epidemics end’, ‘Epidemics end once the diseases become accepted into people's daily lives and routines, becoming endemic—domesticated—and accepted. Endemic diseases typically lack an overarching narrative because they do not seem to require explanation. More often, they appear as integrated parts of the natural order of things.’

But, says Cr Charters, one of the research team points out that there have just as often been celebrations and thanksgiving to mark the end of epidemics - that they have not just fizzled out.

Endings were not always quiet,’ she says. ‘There have been celebrations and fireworks, thanksgiving...but most epidemics have ended when people just returned to their lives.'

See the videos here  How epidemics end | How Epidemics End (ox.ac.uk)

Today we take for granted that sound is spatial, and that hearing is spatial: that it is possible to hear where sounds come from and how far or close they are

Professor Gascia Ouzounian

Contemporary art is replete with works which explore the relationships between sound and space, with ‘space’ understood in physical, sensorial, geographical, social, and political terms.

Today, I can plug my headphones into the façade of a building in Berlin called BUG, to hear how its materiality, made audible through the use of seismic sensors in the building’s infrastructure, changes over time and in response to atmospheric variations, weather and other environmental factors. In other words, I can listen to a building as it evolves over time and in relation to its surroundings.

I can listen to a building as it evolves over time and in relation to its surroundings

In suburban London, I can visit Vex, a building whose spiralling form is inspired by the music of Erik Satie and the methods of John Cage.

Electronic music, projected over loudspeakers, is played throughout the building. It is created from sounds recorded during the making of the building itself: the sounds of breaking ground, of pouring concrete. This literal musique concrète is lush and surprisingly beautiful. It is impossible to say where music begins and architecture ends.

In 2017, I could visit Silent Room, an acoustic refuge in a low- income neighbourhood in Beirut. This temporary structure, erected in a parking lot close to a highway, used acoustic panelling to reduce environmental noise, but it also featured a quiet, meditative soundtrack composed of everyday city sounds. The designer wanted to draw attention to the uneven ways in which noise affects rich and poor inhabitants of the city - how a politics of noise shapes the city and differently impacts upon the lives of its residents.

Today we take for granted that sound is spatial, and that hearing is spatial: that it is possible to hear where sounds come from and how far or close they are

While these particular projects are formed at the intersection of music, art, architecture and urban design, many others take the form of sound recordings, compositions, performances, films, installations, sculptures, radio works, websites, and much more.

Today, I can take a listening tour of Bonn, following a map of unique acoustic features of the city created by Bonn’s ‘City Sound Artist’ in 2010. Or, I can take an ‘electrical walk’ in any number of cities while wearing specially designed headphones which make audible normally inaudible elements of urban infrastructure. During my walk, formerly silent objects such as surveillance cameras, ATMs, and transportation infrastructures, beat and resonate with the pulses and tones of electromagnetic energy.

Despite this striking profusion of creative work and research that takes place at the intersection of sound and space, our historical understanding of how sound came to be understood as spatial remains lacking. Today we take for granted that sound is spatial, and that hearing is spatial: that it is possible to hear where sounds come from and how far or close they are.

Today we take for granted that sound is spatial, and that hearing is spatial: that it is possible to hear where sounds come from and how far or close they are

However, as recently as 1900, a popular scientific view held that sound itself could not relay ‘spatial attributes’, and that the human ear had physiological limitations which prevented it from receiving spatial information. Many psychologists believed it was through reasoning, or visual or haptic sensations, that an ‘auditory space’ was constructed.

In order to explore such striking shifts in perspective, Stereophonica: Sound and Space in Science, Technology, and the Arts (MIT Press) traces a history of thought and practice related to acoustic and auditory spatiality as they emerge in connection to such fields as philosophy, physics, physiology, psychology, music, architecture, and urban studies.

In the work, I track evolving ideas of acoustic and auditory spatiality (the spatiality of sound and hearing); and ideas that emerged in connection to particular kinds of spaces, acoustic and auditory technologies, musical and sonic cultures, experiences of hearing, and practices of listening.

My discussion begins in the 19th century, when scientists began systematically  to study the physiology and psychology of spatial hearing. It extends to the present day, when sound artists seek to reconfigure entire cities through sound, and the concept of ‘sonic urbanism’ circulates within and across the worlds of architecture, urban studies and sound studies. Rather than trace a linear trajectory through any one historical route, I revisit a series of historical episodes in which the understanding of sound and space were transformed:

  • the advent of stereo and binaural technologies in the 19th century;
  • the birth of acoustic defence during the First World War;
  • the creation of new stereo recording and reproduction systems in the 1930s;
  • sonic warfare in the Second World War;
  • the development of ‘spatial music’ and sound installation art in the 1950s and 1960s;
  • innovations in noise mapping and sound mapping; and
  • emergent modes of sonic urbanism (ways of understanding and engaging the city in relation to sound).

Each of these phenomena represents a distinct shift in how sound is created, experienced or understood in relation to space. Further, each sheds light upon evolving acoustic and auditory cultures, ways of listening, and changing ontologies of sound and space.

My aim is to cut into and across normally distinct histories, in order to show how various conceptions of acoustic and auditory spatiality have evolved over time and in connection to one another

By focusing on such transformative episodes, whether they last several years or several decades, my aim in Stereophonica is to set into dialogue various realms of thought and practice that bear upon contemporary ideas of acoustic and auditory spatiality, but that are normally kept distinct within such disciplines as philosophy, physics, engineering, music, and urban studies.

My aim is to cut into and across normally distinct histories, in order to show how various conceptions of acoustic and auditory spatiality have evolved over time and in connection to one another.

I therefore devote considerable attention to experimental projects, whether in science, music, art, or their interstitial spaces - including experiments that failed, were limited in their scope, had troubling ethical implications, or simply did not ‘succeed’ in entering mainstream discourses and canons, but that are nevertheless important because of their conceptual, technical, and aesthetic innovations.

 It is within these experimental practices, those that test the boundaries of a field, that I find particular interest, especially with respect to ideas that defied conventional thinking and, in some cases, put wider social or cultural conventions under pressure.

In contrast to discourses that understand ‘space’ as a void to be filled with sound, my discussion shows that acoustic and auditory spaces have never been empty or neutral, but instead have always been replete with social, cultural, and political meanings. The case studies are chosen to reflect a particular progression both within and across them: how spatial conceptions of sound and hearing were hypothesised, codified, problematised, and politicised.

Stereophonica reveals how different concepts of acoustic and auditory space were invented and embraced by scientific and artistic communities, and how the spaces of sound and hearing themselves were increasingly measured and rationalised, surveilled and scanned, militarised and weaponised, mapped and planned, controlled and commercialised - in short, modernised.

Professor Gascia Ouzounian is a musicologist with the Oxford Faculty of Music and a member of Lady Margaret Hall.

Language skills are also critical for children’s social and emotional development, and their ability to make friends

Concerns over missed education for young people have spread around the world with schools and colleges firmly shut for long stretches because of COVID-19.  In England, the Government has announced large-scale funding to help education recover from the devastation of the pandemic. As part of this, the very youngest children, who have poor oral language skills and have been particularly affected by the switch to online learning, will be able to access specialised help – key to academic success. 

It is widely recognised that language skills are fundamental to many aspects of cognitive and psychosocial development, and that poor language skills are a barrier to educational success. 

The current rollout of the NELI programme in English primary schools is a stunning example of how basic academic research can be translated into practical application at large scale

Developed by an Oxford team, led by Professors Charles Hulme and Maggie Snowling, the Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI) programme improves oral language skills in young children. According to research by this group, there can be a transfer effect with oral language interventions, leading to improved reading comprehension.

As a result of official funding, it is hoped that all  primary schools in England that want it, will benefit from the Oxford oral language programme. Last autumn, the Department for Education announced a £9 million investment in the programme, with a further £8 million announced for next academic year.   In this academic year, this funding has enabled the programme to be delivered by some 6,500 schools.  Schools wishing to register interest, can do so here

The current rollout of the NELI programme in English primary schools is a stunning example of how basic academic research can be translated into practical application at large scale.

Children’s oral language skills are a critical foundation for the whole of formal education....Good language skills underlie a child’s ability to learn to read and to master arithmetic

Professor Charles Hulme

Professor Hulme says, ‘Children’s oral language skills are a critical foundation for the whole of formal education.  To learn in the classroom, children need to understand what is said to them and be able to express their thoughts and feelings.  Good language skills underlie a child’s ability to learn to read and to master arithmetic.’

Dr Gillian West, a member of the research team, comments, ‘Language skills are also critical for children’s social and emotional development, and their ability to make friends.’

Language skills can vary greatly among social groups. According to Professor Hulme, ‘It is well established that children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds often enter school with weak language skills.  The NELI programme offers the potential to help reduce social inequalities in educational outcomes and can also be used effectively with children for whom English is an additional language.’

Language skills are also critical for children’s social and emotional development, and their ability to make friends

Dr Gillian West

The schools taking part identify five or six children in each reception class with the weakest oral language skills.  

Last month, a study of NELI’s effects by Professor Hulme showed that the programme produced sizeable improvements in children’s language skills and small improvements in word reading skills.

Teachers and teaching assistants are trained to deliver the NELI programme using an online training programme, developed by the Oxford team, and delivered on the FutureLearn platform.   The schools taking part identify five or six children in each reception class with the weakest oral language skills.  

These children receive the programme get two 30 minute group sessions each week and three 20 minute individual sessions. During these periods, the children are involved in speaking and listening activities including storytelling and learning new words. Once staff are trained, NELI can be implemented in schools year after year, benefitting generations of children.

Identifying those children who would benefit from the programme is key. Teachers need a way to identify language weaknesses when using the NELI programme. A  ‘LanguageScreen’ assessment app has been developed by Professor Hulme’s research group in collaboration with Dr Mihaela Duta and Dr Abhishek Dasgupta in Oxford’s Department of Computer Science.  It is now available to all schools via an Oxford spinout company (LanguageScreen.com).

Dr Duta says, ‘It is a great pleasure to bring software engineering to bear on an issue of such social importance.’

Children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds often enter school with weak language skills.  The NELI programme offers the potential to help reduce social inequalities in educational outcomes and can also be used effectively with children for whom English is an additional language

Professor Hulme

The Education Endowment Foundation, with private equity enterprise ICG, provided funding  to develop online training for the programme, ensuring it could be offered in a social-distanced manner as well as at national scale. 

LanguageScreen runs on a tablet or phone and gives teachers an accurate and rapid assessment of a child’s language ability via a secure automated online report.  LanguageScreen will allow teachers to monitor the development of children’s language skills.