Supporting speech, language and communication needs

Written by: Mary Hartshorne | Published:
Image: Lucie Carlier

The recommendations from the Bercow: Ten Years On review can help schools to ensure that pupils’ speech, language and communication needs are properly supported. Mary Hartshorne explains

It will soon be six months since I CAN the children’s communication charity, and the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT) launched Bercow: Ten Years On: an independent review of provision for children and young people with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) in England.

The report drew on the evidence of more than 2,500 people who shared their experiences of support for SLCN.

For students attending secondary schools, the picture is not great. Overall, only 15 per cent of respondents to surveys reported that speech and language therapy was available as required – but within this, only 13 per cent of people said specialist support was prioritised in secondary school, a figure which falls to three per cent for the 18 to 25 age group. This is concerning, particularly so when there is more and more evidence which says intervention works for this age group.

The reasons for this, not least major curriculum reforms, wholesale changes to the school system and continuing financial constraints, are tackled in a previous article (SecEd, April 2018). Now, six months on, it’s interesting to consider what has happened.

Bercow: Ten Years On comes with recommendations aimed at strategic decision-makers, organised in the five themes which structure the report:

First, communication is crucial to children’s life chances, yet awareness of its importance among the public and decision-makers is not sufficient. There is more awareness in the early years, less in secondary schools.

Second, strategic, system-wide change approaches to supporting SLCN are rare. Very often SLCN does not feature in national or local policies. With the curriculum no longer having a separate programme of study for speaking and listening, and spoken language no longer counting towards GCSE, it is rare to find that speech, language and communication is a priority in secondary school development plans.

Third, services are inaccessible and inequitable. The review found a postcode lottery of services. Often services were planned on what is available rather than what is needed, with services prioritised in early years and primary schools.

Fourth, support that makes a difference is based on evidence of what works. However, service design and cuts frequently do not take account of this. There is plenty of evidence that intervention with secondary-aged pupils works, but still there is limited support in secondary schools.

Fifth, too many young people with SLCN are missed and are not getting the vital support they need. Early identification and intervention are crucial, and this is not limited to early years – many secondary-aged students’ needs only come to light when they are faced with a demanding academic and social curriculum.

All recommendations were shaped in conversation with the bodies and people to whom they were addressed. Picking up these conversations after the report launch has resulted in fruitful discussions with the early years, curriculum and SEND teams within the Department for Education, with Ofsted inspectors, and with the Education Endowment Foundation. Children and young people’s speech, language and communication are on the agenda.

So, with good engagement, the future could be promising. But what would this promising future look like in secondary schools? During the Bercow: Ten Years On review, we heard evidence from many schools where things were not working well.

Thankfully, there are also schools where there is well-embedded, effective practice. One of the themes arising from the review was the need for areas and schools to take a strategic approach to developing provision. Hanley Castle High School in Malvern has done just that.

A case study

Hanley Castle believes speech, language and communication development is extremely important. Over the last few years, they have outlined this as part of the school’s SEN development plan which has resulted in increased collaboration with the local NHS Speech and Language Therapy team to inform and develop provision at a whole school level. They have used a number of strategic development tools to support this:

  • The Communication Trust’s Speech, Language and Communication Framework (SLCF) is an online self-audit tool which benchmarks how confident adults are in their ability to identify and support students with SLCN.
  • The Balanced System is a framework which takes schools through a process, looking at pupils’ needs across five strands, and at three levels.

The school’s speech, language and communication provision has been transformed from being almost non-existent to being a positive role-model for other secondary schools in the area. Each classroom has a toolkit to support understanding, task management, vocabulary and oral/written narratives, and there is a rolling programme of training for all staff.

A “Communication Teaching Assistant” scheme means that teaching assistants are trained to deliver a range of targeted interventions with students, supported by checklists in each classroom for subject teachers to support differentiation. Because of the excellent collaboration between the school and local speech and language therapy service, best use is made of specialist input with individualised programme for students who have identified SLCN, together with “surgeries” for school staff so that everyone is involved. The school team recently spoke to us about their approach (see further information).

Key to the success at Hanley Castle has been strong leadership and commitment. Throughout the Bercow: Ten Years On review, the importance of strong leadership came through as one of the key features of effective practice.

It was the strategic decision to commission a review of support for students’ SLCN that also drove changes across the Academies Enterprise Trust (AET).

In a pilot project across eight of its academies, the trust prioritised a whole school approach linking closely with their SEN strategy, including building early identification by looking at expected prevalence and red flags for SLCN, planning interventions in and out of lessons, and providing training to school staff (with Level 3 qualifications for some). As a result of this drive for change, pupils with SLCN make strong progress and many no longer need direct specialist support.

  • Mary Hartshorne is head of evidence for I CAN, a national children’s communication charity. She is a specialist speech and language therapist with experience of working in education. She is also is leading Bercow: Ten Years On – the national review of provision for children and young people with SLCN, which was published March 2018.

Reading & references


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