Reviewing SLCN provision 10 years after Bercow

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Mary Hartshorne, head of evidence, I CAN

Reviewing provision for young people with speech, language and communication needs – how does support
in your secondary school measure up?

The ability to communicate is a fundamental life skill. There are very few things that we do that don’t involve speech, language or communication – not the least the ability to learn.

However, many children and young people have difficulty with spoken language; 10 per cent of all pupils have speech, language and communication needs (SLCN), that’s two or three in every classroom. These are pupils whose needs will be long-term.

The role of language in developing thinking is widely known and this role becomes more important as children get older. The move to secondary school brings with it heavy language demands: sophisticated language skills needed to analyse and understand complex texts and to understand increasingly technical vocabulary and words which are specific to secondary school.

The ability to communicate is necessary in managing the move and requires good language skills, for example to ask when you’ve got a problem – it is perhaps not surprising then, that for pupils with SLCN, the transition to secondary school can be difficult.

There is a significant body of evidence showing that when pupils are taught to use talk as a vehicle for learning, they perform better at school. Talk supports thinking, active use of knowledge and reading comprehension.

However, without support young people with SLCN are at risk of academic failure – just 20 per cent of pupils with SLCN gained grade 4/C or above in English and maths at GCSE, compared to 63.9 per cent of all pupils (2016/17). With intervention however, the picture can be very different. So is that intervention available?

The report Bercow: Ten Years On, an independent review of provision for children and young people with SLCN in England, was published in March. Led by I CAN and the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, the report draws on the evidence of more than 2,500 people who shared their experiences of support for SLCN. One of the questions we asked was about support for older children and young people.

The report comes a decade on from the government-backed review led by John Bercow MP in 2008. At that time the review found that services “tended to ‘disappear’ over time, especially at entry to primary school or on transfer to secondary school”.

It “found minimal evidence of services for young people at secondary school and beyond”.

Ten years on, it is interesting to see how things have changed. There is some good news: no-one is in doubt about the importance of speech, language and communication, and the review found really positive developments in certain sectors such as youth justice, where SLCN are common.

However, there were also some less positive findings, and many of these relate to the support available in secondary schools. In the Bercow Ten Years On survey only 13 per cent of people reported that specialist support was prioritised in secondary school, a figure which falls to three per cent for the 16 to 25 age group.

This may not seem surprising given the importance of early intervention. However, many language difficulties do not emerge until secondary age, when the curriculum and organisation of school is much more linguistically demanding. In these cases, early intervention could happen at age 11, 13 or even later – but only if support is in place and only if staff are skilled at identifying SLCN.

It is concerning that, according to Department for Education figures from 2017, primary schools identify 29 per cent of children with SEN as having SLCN as their primary need, but only 10.4 per cent are identified in secondary schools.

A key theme in the report is the need to use evidence of what works when services are planned and designed. We have so much more evidence of what works than we did 10 years ago. The research clearly shows that specialist intervention for secondary-aged pupils with SLCN is effective. So it was particularly worrying to hear written evidence of speech and language therapy services whose cut-off point was age seven, or in some services even age five.

Only 15 per cent felt that speech and language therapy is available as required. The result of this? The report found that more than half of children with their needs not identified in primary school, and a tricky transition to secondary school.
One secondary SENCO wrote: “Students often come up to secondary school with a label of cognition and learning needs, when actually their primary need is SLCN.”

Interestingly, the themes of the current report are similar to those 10 years ago. The themes may be the same, but the reasons, issues and solutions are different and this reflects the significant changes to the context in which schools, settings and services operate.

In the last 10 years, there have been wholesale changes to the education system. There is no longer a distinct “speaking and listening” strand to the national curriculum, and spoken language has been removed from the grading of GCSEs in English and English language.

Has this sent a signal to schools that spoken language is not a priority? The review found that 53 per cent of survey respondents felt that the way children learn in school does not support their spoken language development. The review revealed a disconnect between communication not being prioritised in schools, and employers reporting that these are the very skills they value and need, but often do not get.

Bercow: Ten Years On comes with a set of strong, strategic recommendations aimed at national and local decision-makers. For any change to be sustained, it needs to be systemic – built into policy and not added on. Spoken language and SLCN need to be part of qualified teacher status, included in the questions inspectors ask, and integral to a school’s SEN report.

But as well as this top-down approach, there are many things that school staff, parents and young people themselves can do. On the report website there are practical ideas of how people can take action: audit staff confidence in supporting SLCN; work out how many pupils have SLCN in your school to make a strong business case for SLCN support; start a staffroom discussion. For each suggestion, there are resources to help.

  • Mary Hartshorne is head of evidence for I CAN, a national children’s communication charity. She is a specialist speech and language therapist with many years 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. Visit


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