When I talk to groups of teachers and school leaders, there is seldom any debate about the importance of spoken language for academic learning. And there are hard facts that back this up: early language skills are the single most important factor in predicting literacy levels at age eleven, and spoken vocabulary skills at 13 are very good predictors of GCSE results at 15.
However, the same teachers and school leaders are often surprised when I talk about the number of children and young people who have difficulty with understanding or using spoken language – pupils who have speech, language and communication needs (SLCN).
It’s actually the most frequently reported special educational need in primary schools – 2.6% of all pupils in England on the annual PLASC census. And even this figure is a significant under-representation of actual numbers; over half of children with SLCN are missed.
A recent study in primary schools across Surrey found that 7.6% of pupils in Year 1 (two in every class) had difficulties with speech, language and communication that impact on their learning. With strong evidence of the link between language difficulties and disadvantage, these numbers will be very much higher in more disadvantaged areas.
The critical fact here is that these language difficulties are often not identified. This matters because with the right support in place, these children can do well.
For example, at Broom Barns Primary in Hertfordshire, all children are regularly screened for SLCN. The results are discussed with an independent speech and language therapist, with the children then identified for different intervention groups or more specialist support from the NHS or an independent therapist. All staff receive training supported by speech and language therapists on practical strategies to promote vocabulary development, language comprehension and sentence building.
Data shows that all children receiving interventions have made fantastic progress, with 85% having age-related language skills after taking part. Interestingly, the ‘whole school’ approach to language is also impacting on overall results. Last year’s KS2 results for reading, writing and maths were in the top 5% nationally, even though the school serves an area of significant social disadvantage.
One of the reasons put forward for the under-identification of children with SLCN is because there isn’t the support available. Funding cuts to schools and to specialist external services are very real. Yet this case study illustrates how cost effective, flexible support can be put in place which targets children needing a burst of support as well as those needing more specialist input.
How many schools, I wonder, are able to make this kind of provision? And if they do, will they be able to sustain it in the years ahead?
These are important questions to which we are seeking answers in a new, independent review of provision for children and young people with SLCN, which I am chairing.
2018 will mark ten years since the Bercow Report, the last major national review. Bercow: Ten Years On led by I CAN, the children’s communication charity, and the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT) aims to revisit the themes highlighted in the original report.
One of the recommendations from that report was that government should establish a Communication Champion; a role I held during 2011 and 2012. During that time, I saw the impact of other initiatives which were the result of recommendations: a National Year of Communication, a national research programme, pathfinders looking at how support for children’s SLCN was commissioned, changes to the way people understood and supported SLCN.
But the world is now a very different place. The education system couldn’t have changed more since 2008 when multi-academy trusts were a twinkle in someone’s eye, when ‘speaking and listening’ still had its own programme of study and when reforms to the SEND system weren’t even on the horizon.
We need to know more about the impact of these changes on children with SLCN in this new world. Does the current curriculum meet their needs? Is specialist support available for them, in sufficient quantity and at the right time?
Please do share your views so that we get a true picture the reality of support for children and young people’s SLCN, and can draw on experience to make strong, impactful and cost effective suggestions for change.
To get involved, complete our short survey here, and share our survey for parents and careers as widely as possible.
Jean Gross CBE, Chair of Bercow: Ten Years On and formerly recently the government’s Communication Champion for children and young people
Jean Gross is the author of numerous articles and best-selling books on SEND, including Beating Bureaucracy in SEN (NASEN/Routledge, 2015) and Time to Talk (Routledge, 2013). She is passionate about achieving better life chances for children and young people who don’t have much going for them in their lives and dedicates her time to trying to make a difference for this group.
She has been a teacher, an educational psychologist, head of children’s services in a local authority, and a Fellow at three universities. She headed a charity responsible for one-to-one literacy and numeracy tuition programmes, and led work on overcoming barriers to achievement as a Director of the government’s National Strategies. She was awarded a CBE for services to education in 2011.