Speech and Language UK Hosts Forum to Highlight 1.7 Million Children Struggling With Talking and Understanding

February 2, 2023

On 31st January, former Schools Minister and the new Chair of the Education Committee Robin Walker MP and the Children’s Commissioner Rachel de Souza came together with Speech and Language UK CEO, Jane Harris to discuss the findings of our report 1.7 million young futuresThe Chair of the event was broadcaster and parent Steve Hermon.

They were also joined by a parent, Roisin, and her daughter, Ellen who has Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) and Deputy Head of Inclusion at Northwood Community Primary School Carrie Hyland. Ellen and Roisin talked about their challenges in getting the right help for Ellen at school. Carrie shared her experiences of getting the right support in place in school for children with speech and language challenges. 

Robin Walker MP welcomed the recommendations in the 1.7 million young futures report, particularly highlighting the report’s focus on earlier identification and workforce development. He stressed just how important it was for children to be identified early and be supported properly. Mr Walker noted that not only is this the right thing for the children involved, but also that there is a strong cost saving argument. 

In her contribution, Jane Harris had highlighted the fact that despite the overwhelming evidence of the importance of this issue and despite the evidence showing what worked, successive governments have failed to prioritise talking and understanding words for children and young people.  In response, Mr Walker accepted that historically there had been a greater focus by the DfE on literacy and numeracy. He added that there was a clear case for making sure the right support was in place for children with speech and language challenges so that they could access the wider curriculum and develop literacy and numeracy skills. He also noted how struck he was by the statistics showing that good levels of speech and language had an even greater impact on maths attainment than on literacy. 

The Childrens Commissioner Rachel de Souza said that while as far as possible children with speech and language challenges should be identified and supported before they get into school, it was also incredibly important that teachers had practical support to help those children struggling with talking and understanding words in classrooms right now.  

This reflects our recommendations around upskilling teachers and developing new guidance for schools on what would best support children who are behind in talking and understanding words. Indeed, in her contribution, Jane Harris spoke about how everyone in the children’s workforce should have the knowledge and skills to support talking and understanding words, not just relying on specialist support for children facing challenges. 

Dame Rachel further highlighted the challenge of a lack of joined up services at a local level that meant children with speech and language challenges were being prevented from getting the help they need. To help address this, she highlighted the recommendation in her Family Review for a family hub in every neighborhood, stating that this service would help ensure that children who were behind in talking and understanding words could access the help they needed. 

The Children’s Commissioner also reflected on her own experience as a parent with a child with speech and language challenges and how transformative speech and language therapy had been. 

Parent Roisin told the panel that her daughter Ellen’s education experience was one of low expectations, a poverty of ambition and unequal access to the curriculum. Roisin stated that throughout secondary school and 6th form college, there was little accommodation for Ellen. She spent a lot of her time withdrawn from classes working solely with a Teaching Assistant (TA) with few chances for her to interact with classmates, leading to isolation in both the social and learning context. Ironically, the interventions implemented to support her, excluded Ellen. She was again segregated and marginalised – working away from the mainstream classroom environment. 

Ellen has previously said that the thing she found most frustrating was being misrepresented by those supporting her. She wasn’t able to control her own narrative as others were speaking for her. The teachers would often ask the TA questions rather than asking Ellen herself. People spoke about her and not to her. Assumptions were made and she was underestimated. Often, she felt invisible.” Ellen shared a film with the meeting, setting out her views of what needed to change.

Deputy Head of Inclusion, Carrie Hyland then outlined the actions taken in her school Northwood Community Primary School, to support children with talking and understanding words. They take a whole school approach, ensuring all children can get help with talking and understanding words, but bring in targeted and specialist support as needed. Every single member of staff knows that it is their job to engage with all the children to help develop their skills talking and understanding words. At a more targeted level, the school’s Talk Boost intervention has had a huge impact. The school also prides itself on being outward facing and able to draw on a range of external agencies and expertise as needed for those who need more help. On finishing her presentation, Carrie shared with the panel her belief that ‘communication is a right, not a privilege, and all children deserve to be heard.’  

Speech and Language UK, Chief Executive Jane Harris said: 

“We are incredibly grateful to everyone who spoke at our event. Our report has revealed yet again that more children than ever need help with speech and language challenges. At least 1.7 million children are currently struggling with talking and understanding words. This is an additional increase of 200,000 children compared with two years ago. We’d really like to see a fundamental shift across government that recognises the centrality of speech and language challenges to many of the societal and economic issues that we face. Speech and language must be recognised better in the Family Hubs guidance. And we would like Ofsted to look at speech and language support – in particular how speech and language should be integrated across the curriculum.” 

Click here to view Speech and Language UK’s event. 

Speech and Language UK would like to thank everyone who spoke at the event for sharing their experiences with the panel and participants.