UK: Shout it from the rooftops: How ministers can solve the speech and language crisis

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Jul 3 13:46:13 UTC 2008

Shout it from the rooftops: How ministers can solve the speech and
language crisis

Next week a Government-commissioned report will recommend radical
action to tackle speech and language problems in our schools. Sarah
Cassidy has an exclusive interview with its author, the Tory MP John

Thursday, 3 July 2008

When Jerry started school, he could not speak a word. Like many
autistic children, he would not make eye contact and lacked the desire
to communicate with the world. Jerry is one of the estimated 10 per
cent of children who have serious speech and language problems. Now
10, though, he is a confident talker who represents his class on the
school council and has won a coveted place at Mossbourne Community
Academy in Hackney, east London, one of the Government's flagship
schools, where six applicants compete for every place.

"I have learnt how to speak a lot," says Jerry, who over the past six
years has been taught all the conversational skills that most people
take for granted: how to make eye contact, to take turns in a
conversation and to form the words he needs. "Before I didn't know how
to speak, but now I find it easy. I go to language club, where we talk
about what we did at the weekend and we like to talk." It has been a
slow and intensive process, but Jerry's astonishing progress has also
transformed his future, enabling him to make friends, go to normal
lessons and go on to attend a mainstream secondary school.

Speech and language problems affect three times as many children as
dyslexia and 10 times as many children as autism, but the issue has
failed to be recognised as a major problem, despite the crucial role
it plays in shaping children's lives. A growing number of children –
up to 50 per cent in England's poorest areas – are starting school
with severe language delays. Experts have warned that parents' failure
to talk to their children is a time bomb that threatens to destroy the
life chances of thousands of young people.

It is in this climate that the Government has set out to tackle the
"hidden disability" of speech and language problems. Next Tuesday,
John Bercow, the Conservative MP for Buckingham, whose four-year-old
son Oliver has verbal dyspraxia, a condition that affects speaking
ability, will publish the findings of his 10-month review into
provision for children who have speech problems. The Government
commissioned the Bercow Review in September 2007 because of
dissatisfaction on the part of families of children who have speech

The appointment of a Tory MP to head a Government review was
controversial, but Bercow has insisted his inquiry is above "petty
party-political point- scoring". Both Labour and the Conservatives
must shoulder responsibility for weaknesses with language provision
because they were "long-standing and have festered under successive
administrations," he says. "The Government has made literacy and
numeracy a major priority, and that's great – they are important," he
says. "But the ability to communicate is fundamental. It is the
foundation life skill for the 21st century, the indispensable
prerequisite for children and young people, to learn, achieve and make

Bercow is calling for speech and language to be put firmly in the
spotlight with a Year of Speech and Communication, similar to the way
ministers have branded 2008 as the Year of Reading. He believes a
"communication champion" is needed to push home the message about the
importance of speech and communication to parents and the wider

Nursery rhymes and simple songs could be used to raise public
awareness of the importance of talking to children from the earliest
possible age, while parents would be provided with better information
to help them spot potential problems in their children's development.
Early intervention is the key, he says.

"If children get help early, they can learn to communicate, make
friends and get an education. If they do not, they face a whole range
of problems from emotional and psychological difficulties, lower
education attainment, poorer job prospects and a possible descent into

Experts believe that much more needs to be done to embed speech and
vocabulary teaching into the curriculum. Bercow hopes to solve this
with better teacher training – so that all new teachers know how to
develop children's communication skills – and a requirement for all
adults who work with children to have had some training in speech and

Families face a "postcode lottery" and many have battled for years to
secure help for their children. Bercow hopes to tackle this by setting
out a basic entitlement of what help a child with speech problems
should receive "whether they are brought up in Haringey, Hull or

Bercow's inquiry found that there was widespread dissatisfaction with
services for children who have language problems. More than 2,000
people responded to the Bercow Review consultation, including 1,000
families of children who have speech problems.

Fifty five per cent of parents said they were unhappy with the help
provided to their child.

They told the MP that their children were left to struggle in silence
and that a policy of early intervention had not been pursued as
agencies bickered with parents, argued with one another and lost
precious time to help children.

Tyssen primary school in Hackney, east London, impressed Bercow during
his inquiry as it is already doing many of the things that he will
recommend next week. The London borough of Hackney has seen a
remarkable turnaround in its speech and language services. Six years
ago, it received the second-highest number of complaints of any
service provided by the primary health trust and parents faced an
11-month wait for a first appointment to see a speech therapist. Now
they are seen within five weeks, complaints have plummeted and parents
can bring their children to drop-in sessions to have their speech and
language skills assessed by professionals.

The joint working of its health and education services is hailed as
excellent by Bercow. But, sadly, this cooperative approach is rare.
All too often parents are caught in the crossfire between health and
education services that blame each other for systemic failures.

Tyssen school was chosen for a visit by the review team because it
showcases Hackney's joint working and combines early intervention in
its children's centre with a specialist unit for autistic pupils in
the main school. In addition, it aims to spread its focus on speech
and language skills throughout the school for the benefit of all

Sue Windross, the head teacher, is a passionate believer in spreading
good communication skills throughout the school, not just focusing on
them in the context of speech problems. "There is a growing awareness
that you can't put all the children with speech and language problems
in special schools or resourced units, because there are too many of
them and you risk creating schools within schools," she says. "Speech
and language is a growing issue for a wider number of children and it
is vital that this help is shared for the benefit of all."

The review will also call for an audit of the numbers of speech
therapists after parents complained of a shortage of therapists.
However, Bercow believes that much of this problem can be solved by
improving the skills of the existing workforce so that teachers and
teaching assistants can take on some of the tasks originally carried
out only by therapists.

Beth Junor, a speech therapist based at Tyssen school three days a
week, agrees that although there are children who will always need the
intensive support of a speech therapist, the role of therapists has to
change. "There isn't enough time for me to see everyone on my caseload
one to one in a nice, quiet room, and it isn't always desirable.

"An important part of my role is helping teachers and teaching
assistants carry on programmes that I have designed. Parents want
their child to have time with a speech therapist, but that isn't
always the best way of doing things."

According to Stephen Parsons, Hackney's speech-and-language therapy
team manager, parents will need time to regain their faith in a system
that they believe has failed their children. "Now we have early
intervention, so by the time their child comes into school, they will
be familiar with me and our service. Before they were on a war footing
because they had been on a waiting list for so long and had to
complain a lot to get anywhere."

Language campaigners are excited about what they hope will be a new era.

"This isn't just a special- needs issue any more," says Anita
Kerwin-Nye, of the charity I CAN. "And it isn't about a small number
of children. The speech and language support needs to be much stronger
for all."
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