Our response to

Commenting on Keir Starmer’s speech on opportunity for all

July 6, 2023

Commenting on Keir Starmer’s speech on opportunity for all and specifically the plans on increasing oracy education, Jane Harris, CEO of children’s charity, Speech and Language UK said: 

Today (6th July 2023), the Labour leader has committed to giving every child a voice. This promise is needed more than ever when at least 1.7 million children have speech and language challenges, up 200,000 in one year alone. We would like all political parties in all countries of the UK to match this pledge.

Without help, these children’s futures look bleak. 6 times more likely to fail at English. 11 times more likely to fail at maths. Twice as likely to have mental health problems as children and to be unemployed as adults. While communication skills are important for all children, this group are on the most need of better help.

What is so frustrating for us at Speech and Language UK is that we know how to fix this. So here’s our five-point plan:

  1. We need to get short group sessions to these children. Half of children with speech and language challenges, can have these resolved after short group sessions over weeks rather than months. We need to make sure there’s good guidance for schools and nurseries on which of these work.  Children of all ages missed out on opportunities to practice talking and understanding words during lockdown and their age shouldn’t be a barrier to them getting one of these evidence-based programmes. Our Talk Boost programmes are just one of the options – schools and nurseries need information on the whole range so they can work out which is best for their children.
  2. Help schools spot which children are struggling with talking and understanding words. For free. At the moment schools have to pay commercial companies to check who in their class is struggling. The Welsh Government is now creating a tool that schools will be able to use for free to spot children who are struggling with speech and language.
  3. Give families better advice. We work with families every week who want to help their children’s speech and language development. But they don’t know the basics. They often describe having a Eureka moment when we give them the facts. Tips like repeating back what a child says and adding on a word, to show you’ve understood and to model longer sentences. It really works. We need Government to invest in campaigns to give families this kind of tip just as they have invested in vaccine, anti-obesity and other wellbeing campaigns.
  4. Reform teacher training so that all teachers know how to help children with lifelong speech and language challenges. We know that about a million children have a long-term speech and language challenge. That’s 2 in every classroom. But half of our teachers say that they haven’t had enough training to help support them. No workplace would design training that left out such a huge proportion of its customers. Teachers need tips like how to use visual prompts to help children learn. And how to ask children questions on different ways so they can participate in the classroom.
  5. Fund schools for children with complex speech and language challenges including specialists like Speech and Language Therapists. Some children’s challenges mean they need a curriculum that is totally focused on helping them to communicate. We need to make sure these schools have the funding they need to recruit specialist teachers, Teaching Assistants and both speech and language and occupational therapists. These schools can make a huge difference. I saw a child who was non-verbal a year at one of our schools last month. When I saw him he was enjoying a phonics lesson – and getting it right. But the vacancy rate for children’s speech and language therapists at the moment is dreadful – 25% in the NHS. We need to train more speech and language therapists so we can give all children the skills they need.

Fundamentally we need our education system to take speech, language and communication seriously. Schools sometimes seem to have forgotten that literacy, numeracy or even subjects like physics are based on communication skills. We track schools’ progress in all these other areas, so why not on this most fundamental of human skills? We will keep pushing until all UK Governments and the education system see that tackling speech and language challenges is key to our children’s futures.