Why some secondary school pupils struggle: the impact of SLCN

Secondary school data released this week by the Department for Education has been widely reported in the media, the headlines seem fairly shocking:

“Struggling pupils don’t catch up” (BBC News Online)

“Results show stark classroom divide between rich and poor” (The Independent)

“’Shocking waste of talent’ as schools fail pupils” (Daily Mirror)

However league tables do not always give the full picture.

For the 1.2 million children in the UK who have speech, language and communication needs (SLCN), secondary school can often be a difficult and isolating place. For example, from Year 7 onwards, a pupil is expected to listen to and understand much more complex and technical language. For young people who have difficulty processing language, this can force them into the bottom of the class – even if they have managed to progress adequately throughout primary school.

This can often lead to disengagement with learning, manifesting itself in social isolation, poor attainment and poor attendance. At the extreme end of the scale, it can lead to young people becoming excluded from school and engaging in anti-social behaviour and even youth offending.

It has been well documented that children with SLCN do not make as much progress as their peers during their time at secondary school. In Jean Gross CBE’s recently released outgoing report as Communication Champion, she identified there is a small narrowing of the gap between pupils with SLCN and their peers in primary but a widening gap in secondary schools.

Her report found that 21.9% of pupils with SLCN attained Level 4 or above in English and mathematics at the end of primary school, compared with 73.5% of all pupils. In secondary schools, 68.3% of all pupils made the expected progress in English, compared to 43.5% of pupils with SLCN. And 32% of pupils with SLCN made the expected level of progress in maths, compared to 61.2% of all pupils (p. 20, point 81, data from 2010).

However, the picture for young people with SLCN can be very different. With the right support, they can make good progress throughout their school careers and go on to achieve their potential. This may not mean getting 5 A*-C grades in every case, but is about developing their skills, confidence and self-esteem and being able to go on to get a job and be successful in their lives.

To enable teachers to offer the right support for pupils with SLCN, I CAN have been working with secondary schools across to country to raise awareness of creating a ‘communication supportive’ school environment through our Secondary Talk programme.

Schools involved in the programme found that it had a very positive effect on learning, attainment and behaviour:

“I suddenly realised that many of these previously excluded students have a much better understanding of what the lesson is about just by making simple adjustments to the way I talk. These things take a bit of practice but really help the students understand.”

The programme also had an impact on staff knowledge and confidence to support young people’s communication and changing practice with how schools support communication:

“Two years ago, Contextual Value Added scores for our students were in the bottom 15%, now they are in the top 5%. We’ve achieved an 85% reduction of days lost to fixed term exclusions. Although Secondary Talk is not the sole causal factor in these improvements, it has certainly provided a significant CPD and operational focus for our continuing work to address these issues.” Tony Morrison, Principal, Park Hall Academy, Birmingham

For more information on the issues for young people with SLCN, read our research report here.

Learn how to support secondary-aged young people in this fantastic blog from Maxine, I CAN Communication Advisor.  

To find out more about Secondary Talk and watch a film from a Headteacher, click here.