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Hear from education experts

July 4, 2024

With the UK General Election taking place today (July 4th), Speech and Language UK and education experts explore where current policy in schools to support speech, language and communication skills isn’t working and what simple changes could make a difference. 

Ann Gross 

“The impact of the pandemic means that children in many schools are being held back because their speech, language and communication skills are now so far behind.  Families are often under such pressure, especially in deprived areas, that they don’t have time to play and read with their children. Help and support is needed when children are at nursery age so that they start school with the language they need to communicate and learn.  We should train teachers better in supporting speech, language and communication skills, including in secondary schools, giving schools guidance on what works well and the funding to implement this. This will inspire schools to solve the problems they are seeing every day. Let’s not dampen their enthusiasm through a one size fits all solution that simply cannot reflect the diversity of schools today.” 

Ann Gross is a school governor and former DfE Official 

Sue Gregory 

“Too many children arrive at school with delayed speech, language, listening and social skills. But current policy isn’t working. Teachers do what they can with limited funding. They can access Government approved programmes, although these are not enough. Besides, skilled teachers understand children’s needs better than any politician. Simple changes could make a real difference. It’s obvious that schools should get more investment, but what else?  

They should have more choice, not more mandated schemes. They need better guidance on successful programmes so they can work out what works for ‘their’ children and students. This might mean programmes with small and large groups, or sessions with fewer staff because that is all they can offer.  

Crucially, schools should be making the operational decisions, but they can’t. And so, we are failing our children. This will not change unless politicians listen harder to the professionals!” 

Sue Gregory is a former national director for early education, Ofsted 

Dr Tim Coulson 

“Deep change is needed in our approach to meeting children’s very particular needs in school – it is widely acknowledged that this is the biggest challenge currently in our education system.  

A very good start by a new Government would be to make a very high priority a step change in support for children’s speech and language development in their first two years in school. In schools in Suffolk, such a step change would be earmarked funding for evidence based daily interventions to make standard improving children’s spoken and received language for 4–6-year-olds.” 

Tim is Chief Executive of Unity Schools Partnership. He was previously a headteacher in London, national director of the national numeracy strategy, director of education for Essex County Council and a Regional Schools Commissioner.

Nick Whittaker

I know from my time as a Headteacher that children’s speech, language and communication development has an important and generative effect on every area of their learning, their experience of school and their outcomes and life chances. Although it has primacy in early years education, children’s speech, language and communication development is almost invisible in the National Curriculum. Year-on-year, more children have long-term speech and language challenges and in the most disadvantaged communities as many as one in two children start school behind in their language development. Prioritising speech, language and communication skills in the primary and secondary curriculum and developing effective, evidence-based approaches to supporting children who need help is long overdue in national education policy.” 

Nick Whittaker is a Learn Sheffield Improvement Partner and has over 35 years of teaching and leadership experience in secondary and special schools. Before joining Learn Sheffield, Nick was the Headteacher of two all-age special schools, an HMI and Ofsted’s Specialist Adviser for SEND. 

Jane Harris 

“With 1 in 5 children having speech and language challenges, we need a future Government that supports schools to put speech, language and communication skills at the heart of the curriculum.  This cannot mean only funding one group programme for reception-aged children in the form of NELI as the current Government have done for the last four years. Schools should be able to use Government funding for a range of solutions – including starting programmes earlier, with nursery children where they have that provision. The Irish Government has recently committed to fund an early language intervention in all pre-schools. Why should English children wait to get the help they need when their Government policy could also be as flexible?” 

Jane Harris is Chief Executive of Speech and Language UK 

Speech and Language UK is calling on the next government to immediately start helping the 1.9 million children currently struggling with talking and understanding words and reduce the chances of those children failing in school, developing mental health problems, being out of work and offending as young adults.

Speech and Language UK’s full manifesto is available here.