Why are schools reporting more children with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN)?


Just before Christmas, the Department for Education (DfE) launched the results of a major 3 year national research programme: the Better Communication Research Programme (BCRP), the most extensive research programme ever for SLCN with the ambitious aims of bringing together research, policy and practice. One of the headlines was that the number of children and young people at primary and secondary school reported to have SLCN has risen 72% between 2006 and 2011. This seems like a huge increase, so the first question we get asked when people see this reported rise is:

“Why? Why are there more children with SLCN?”

Well, firstly it’s a rise in the number of children reported to have SLCN. This data comes from school census data – so it is information schools submit to the DfE about children with identified special educational needs (SEN). They note down the number of children who have SLCN as their primary (or main) need at School Action Plus or with Statements of SEN. So could it be that schools are just more aware of SLCN, and more able to identify children who have difficulties with language? Certainly, this could be the case; we have, after all, in 2011 had a National Year of Communication, Hello,  which targeted the school’s workforce through its projects. As well as this, the last couple of years have seen communication become embedded in some key education policy: it’s now one of the 3 prime areas of learning in the revised Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum (EYFS); a criteria on which schools will be judged in the new Ofsted inspection framework; and in an expert report to the primary curriculum review, oral language was highlighted as key to children’s learning – to name just a few.

There has been a similar rise in the numbers of children reported as having an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), and one of the reasons given for this has been a broadening of the definition of ASD. Is this also the case with SLCN? It was certainly used to include a wide range of children in the Bercow Review of Services to Support Children with SLCN in 2008; it included those with very specific language difficulties as well as those with more complex profiles. The BCRP reports discuss how the term ‘SLCN’ can be confusing to parents and practitioners, meaning different things to different people. The research team found that children could move in and out of the SLCN category as they moved through school and felt this reflected the broad nature of the category. They felt that school staff had difficulty capturing pupils’ main needs, particularly in the early stages of primary education. So could this mean the numbers reported are inaccurate?

Here at I CAN, despite this reported rise, we remain concerned that children with SLCN are still under-identified. For example, school staff in primary schools identify around 3% of children with SLCN, yet we know from national and international prevalence studies this should be closer to 7-9%. The BCRP itself reported that children with EAL are often identified as having language learning difficulties, when actually they are learning a second language – and often soon catch up.

We’re also interested in the evidence they found about which children are more likely to be reported as having SLCN. It is 2.5 times more likely if you are a boy, 1.65 times if you are summer born and 2.3 times more likely for children and young people to be identified in areas of social disadvantage. This is not a surprise but it is useful to have this up-to-date information at a time when, more than ever, we need to plan for and target specialist resources as efficiently as possible.

This leads us to the second question people ask – “so given this rise in children reported as having SLCN, are there also more services to support them?”

We suspect you know the answer to that question during these times of austerity! Interestingly, the the BCRP research flags the fact that just establishing children’s primary needs doesn’t give enough information to plan services or differentiate the curriculum. However, what the research does usefully do is give us some really good, clear evidence to support a systematic, 3-tiered approach to supporting children and young people’s SLCN. It tells us that there needs to be a good classroom environment which encourages all children’s language development – and only then can ‘financial and professional resources be allocated in cost effective and efficient ways’.  With evidence of the significant impact of the A Chance to Talk initiative (I CAN, The Communication Trust and the Every Child a Chance Trust) just about to be launched, we couldn’t agree more.

A Chance to Talk is a 3-tiered approach to supporting all children’s speech, language and communication in primary schools. Not only did this improve outcomes for children’s speech, language and communication (particularly for children with delayed language who made up to 18 months progress after a 10 week intervention, Talk Boost), it also had an impressive impact on their learning in the classroom.

Encouragingly, the evaluation of ACTT also showed that school staff became more confident and accurate at identifying children with SLCN during the project, which is important given shortfall in identification discussed in this blog.

Look out for the findings from this exciting 2 year pilot A Chance To Talk project at