maxine burns

Returning home; giving back

I CAN Speech and Language Advisor, Maxine Burns reflects on her return home to empower her community with vital speech and language therapy training.

A sense of community is so important. Whether in relation to work or outside of that, making connections with people makes the difference.

Maybe it’s because I’m passionate about speech, language and communication (skills that underpin interaction) that I particularly love the connections I’ve made as a result of working in this field. Having lived and worked in a whole range of communities across three countries of the UK, I still feel a sense of belonging to them all, even when I’ve long ago left that particular place. 

I recently returned to Ayrshire, to the semi-rural south-west Scotland community where I grew up. My associations are couched both in the warm fuzziness of childhood nostalgia and, in more recent years, the harsh reality of the area’s economic decline. My return was not for a family visit, but a visit in a professional capacity. I was set to spend two days delivering Licensee training to four speech and language therapists, each poised to become I CAN Licensees in all three Talk Boost programmes. 

At I CAN, we know that delayed language can significantly affect a child’s ability to learn, make friends and make the right amount of progress at school. We also know that across the UK, children who grow up in persistent poverty are more at risk of having delayed language, and therefore are more at risk of not doing as well in school as their better off peers. Evidence tells us that children with delayed language can catch up, providing they are given the chance of the right support.

The part of Ayrshire where I grew up was never a rich area and, like me, most of my classmates came from ordinary working class families. But, even when I was growing up, I was aware that a very small number of the children in my primary class didn’t have the rich language environment and educational nurturing I had. Now, with the training and experience I have accrued, it’s easy for me to look back and see that this almost certainly contributed to their lack of academic success.

Now, the numbers of children with delayed language in the area where I grew up are significantly higher. High numbers of children don’t have the language skills they should have aged three to make the most of the nursery education opportunities presented to them. Many of these same children then struggle to make progress in school. Friends of my parents report that it’s no longer unusual for children to leave primary school unable read effectively. Attainment at statutory school leaving age is low and unemployment amongst young people is high. It angers me that children attending the same primary school as I once did will struggle much, much more to become doctors, dieticians, teachers, engineers and even speech and language therapists like we did.

The project that these four speech and language therapists are involved in is trying to address some of these issues at their heart: high numbers of children in the target schools with delayed speech, language and communication skills. It’s a monumental task but with better speech, language and communication skills, the children who will benefit from the Talk Boost interventions this team will implement will have an increased chance to develop the literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing targets set by the project at a national level. Staff, initially working alongside and learning from these women, will have a better understanding of the links between language and attainment and how they can support more children in their school to develop the language and communication skills they need.

The two days of training was intense but seemed to go well and it was lovely to re-connect with the people and the issues of this area, without looking at them through rose-tinted nostalgia. Regardless of the challenges that face them, and there are many, this Ayrshire team now have another set of tools to support the important work that they do.