1.7 million children and young people at risk of being left behind as they struggle to talk and understand words

October 12, 2022

Shocking new figures released today from Speech and Language UK: Changing young lives* show that at least 1.7 million children** – almost one in five school-age children- are now estimated to be behind with talking and understanding words.

Speech and Language UK asked primary and secondary school teachers across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland about the impact the pandemic has had on their pupils’ abilities to talk and understand words. The findings show that the majority of teachers surveyed believe the Government is not prioritising speech and language work, despite children with speech and language challenges being at higher risk of mental health problems, low educational achievement and unemployment.

These figures indicate a marked increase of 200,000 children being behind in this area, confirming Speech and Language UK’s previous warnings*** that if the Government didn’t take specific action and invest in the right types of catch-up support and teacher training as part of Covid recovery programmes, they risked failing significant numbers of children.

Research from Speech and Language UK indicates that within schools:

  • 70% of teachers surveyed believe that UK government does not prioritise children’s speaking and understanding of language – up from 63% of teachers surveyed last year-
  • 72% of teachers surveyed believe that students transitioning from Y6 to Y7 will struggle more with their speech and language in comparison to year groups who started secondary school before the coronavirus pandemic
  • 41% of teachers surveyed feel that they do not have enough or adequate training to properly support students who are behind with speech and language. Of those teachers with 5 years or less teaching experience, this number rises to 50%

To change the lives of 1.7 million children, the charity is calling on the newly appointed Ministers at the Department for Education to put in place an urgent action plan including:

  • Creating a freely available tool to help primary school teachers spot which children need extra help
  • Putting in place better training for teachers on how to support children with challenges in talking and understanding words#
  • Investing in more preventative work so that fewer children experience speech and language challenges

Jane Harris, Speech and Language UK Chief Executive said:

“This research is a wake-up call to new Ministers in the Department for Education. Without urgent action, 1.7 million young futures are at risk. For too long, our education system has failed to recognise that some children struggle to learn to talk and understand words, just as some struggle with reading, writing and maths.

If Government and education leaders don’t act urgently, hundreds of thousands more children will be at risk of falling behind in education, developing mental health problems and becoming unemployed in the future. We urge Kit Malthouse and his team to make sure existing reading programmes tackle speech and language challenges fully and support schools and nurseries to spot and support the 1.7 million children struggling with talking and understanding words.

More broadly, we encourage leaders across the education system to re-evaluate the role of speech and language support within our schools and nurseries. From its first days, our education system has prioritised the 3Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic – and hasn’t recognised that speech and language skills underpin progress in all those areas. With the evidence before us, now is the time to change that perspective and recognise the primacy of speech and language.“


Notes to editors

Available for interview: Jane Harris, Speech and Language UK Chief Executive.
Family Case Studies available for interview.

For a copy of the report: ‘1.7 million young futures’, or to interview spokespersons, case studies or other media enquiries, contact Simon Walsh, Speech and Language UK’s Press Manager via or call 07824 446989.

  • Since April 2020 over 2000 (2,164) people have phoned Speech and Language UK’s Helpline
  • Calls to the helpline more than doubled during Covid and remain twice as high as 2019
  • Most of the calls relate to children aged 0-3 years
  • Around half the people who contact us haven’t been seen by a speech and language therapist before
  • Over half of our calls are from parents worried about their child’s talking
  • Most of the calls come from the South East and we are looking at ways to let people in other areas of the UK know about the helpline

*Formerly I CAN, the children’s communication charity.

**The 1.7 million figure was calculated by using mid-point analysis of a YouGov survey of 1,000 teachers in June 2022 asking “Approximately, what percentage of your class(es) do you think are behind with either their speaking or understanding language?” Calculated to be 18% of pupils. Teacher estimates of the percentage of children affected were subjected to a mid-point interval analysis. Using a pupil population estimate of England, Scotland and Wales of **9,190,799 primary and secondary pupils, this now equates to 1.7 million children. 

***In 2021 Speech and Language UK commissioned a poll of over 1,000 teachers to uncover the impact the pandemic on children’s ability to talk and understand words. Teachers told us then that the Government wasn’t providing enough support for children in this area and that as a result, we estimated as many as 1.5 million children were at risk of not being able to talk or understand words at an age-appropriate level.

Who are Speech and Language UK?  

On 12th October, 2022, I CAN changed its name to Speech and Language UK: Changing young lives as part of a brand refresh. Over the years, our focus has centred on supporting children with challenges talking and understanding words. This is now our sole area of work and an area where we hold vast expertise. We develop innovative tools and training for schools and nurseries like our Talk Boost programme. We give advice and guidance to families through our enquiry service. We run two special schools for children with the most complex speech and language challenges. And we push for policy change. This year, following consultation with professionals and families of children with speech and language challenges, we recognised our name needed to change to reflect the work we do.

For further information, from 12th October, visit www.speechandlanguageuk or follow us at @SpeechAndLangUK