26 October 2021

Calling on support for speaking and understanding

Amy Loxley, I CAN’s Interim Lead Speech & Language Advisor, explains why the charity is calling on Chancellor Rishi Sunak to place support for speaking and understanding at the heart of this week’s Spending Review

What will the long-term impact of the pandemic be on today’s children? We don’t yet know the full extent, although we are starting to see some worrying research in this area. We shouldn’t be surprised about this – repeated lockdowns and social distancing measures have resulted in months of missed educational and social opportunities for children.  

Speaking and understanding language is fundamental for everything we do: making friends, learning, good mental health, getting a job. Yet, as many as 1.5 million children in the UK are at risk of not being able to speak and understand language at an age-appropriate level. These children face increased likelihood of having emotional and behavioural problems, poorer academic outcomes, school exclusions, and even representation in the youth justice system. As adults, they are at increased risk of unemployment. Government has an opportunity in the upcoming spending review to change this.

In our research earlier this year, two-thirds of teachers we surveyed said that Government hasn’t put enough support in place for children to catch up with speaking and understanding language post-Covid. They were seeing “a reduction in range of vocabulary, children are less used to engaging in conversations in person,” and “lower speaking and understanding skills are shown in language screening across key indicators”. The Government has made a good start by investing in the Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI) for reception-aged children – however we know that children’s difficulties go far beyond reception. One teacher told us: “A lot of students have arrived with us (in year 7) working at year 2/3 level. They don't have the language to be able to understand the content in some secondary lessons”. 

Difficulties speaking and understanding language are often misunderstood and under-diagnosed, meaning that many children are in schools without their needs properly understood or supported. It is the business of all teachers to know how to identify these children and support them in their learning – it’s a part of all teaching practice, rather than an add-on. However, 68% of teachers told us they had received “not very much” or “not any” ongoing training in supporting children who are struggling with their speaking and understanding – and 64% said the same about initial teacher training. 

Children with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) have lifelong difficulties speaking and understanding language – they need long term changes to their education and specialist speech and language support. Yet, speech and language therapy services are grossly under-funded. This has only worsened since the pandemic, with some services putting a freeze on accepting referrals altogether to combat their growing waiting lists.

So, what are we asking for in the spending review? We need:

  • An investment in catch-up interventions for children’s speaking and understanding across the age range – not just in reception.
  • A funded programme of training for teachers so they are able to identify, support and track the progress of children who have difficulties speaking and understanding language – this is the business of all teachers, not just a few.
  • Adequate funding for speech and language therapy services so that children who have long-term difficulties can be diagnosed and receive the specialist support they need to achieve their potential.  

Government has a chance to reduce the impact of the pandemic on the futures of our children. By investing money now in children’s speaking and understanding, we avoid paying far greater sums down the line when these children are later facing increased risk of unemployment and even youth offending. We can’t take away the negative experiences our children have had to endure as a result of the pandemic, but we can mitigate some of the effects by making an investment in their future.

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