A decade of highs and lows
Former government Communication Champion for children and young people and Chair of the Bercow: Ten Years On decision making panel, Jean Gross, reflects on the decade of change since the 2008 Bercow Report.
As you read this, pause for a moment to reflect. Are you where you are in your career, your life, your relationships because you have good (or at least OK) communication skills? The answer is probably yes.
And yet for children and young people who struggle with language and communication, the path isn’t so easy. The numbers are large: two or three children in every school class, 50% or more in disadvantaged areas. Prevalence seem to be growing: three quarters of health visitors have seen a rise in the number of preschool children with language difficulties in the last two years. And yet awareness of these children’s needs is low. You might want to try the taxi driver test: ask a taxi driver what autism is and they’ll tell you. Ask them what speech, language and communication needs are and they won’t have any idea. Even though these needs (SLCN) are ten times more common than autism.
Just over 10 years ago, MP John Bercow published a report on provision for children with SLCN. The forty recommendations in his review were grouped under key themes: communication is crucial; early identification and intervention are essential; a continuum of services designed around the family is needed; joint working is critical. Another theme was the need to change a system of provision characterised by ‘high variability and a lack of equity across the country’. In other words, a postcode lottery.
Much good came from the original Bercow 2008 review: a major research programme that has left the very useful ‘What Works’ website of evidence-based interventions for children with SLCN as just one legacy, for example. And a National Year of Communication that definitely raised awareness of the lifelong importance of good communication skills.
I liken raising awareness about SLCN, however, to rolling a stone uphill. In the years after the original Bercow review we pushed the stone uphill a little. But as soon as you stop it rolls right back down again.
Equally, people and contexts change. In the two years that I spent as the government’s Communication Champion – a post recommended by the first Bercow report – I personally visited senior health and education leaders in 105 out of England’s 152 local authority areas, to discuss their provision for SLCN. I wonder how many of those leaders are still in post? In the last ten years we have seen a total upheaval in local services. The NHS is configured differently, the power of local authorities has diminished, schools are more autonomous and there have been significant reforms to special educational needs and disability systems and services.
This changing landscape means we need to take stock and really understand the situation around support for SLCN right now. So when I CAN and the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists initiated the Bercow: Ten Years On review I was delighted to chair it.
To really understand the experiences of children and young people and their families we wanted to know:
- Is there still a postcode lottery operating for children and young people with SLCN?
- Are services working better together to make sure families are experiencing a joined up service?
- Where are services being prioritised?
More than 2,500 people contributed evidence to the review. There was some good news in their responses. We found for example that the skills and knowledge of schools and early years staff have improved; their expertise in supporting children and young people with SLCN is now considered good or excellent by 48% of respondents, compared to only 30% when this question was asked ten years ago. We also heard about brilliant work in local areas like Nottinghamshire, Knowsley, Warwickshire, Southend and Greater Manchester, and in innovative school groupings like the Academies Enterprise Trust.
What these developments had in common, we soon concluded, was outstanding leadership by creative, tenacious and courageous individuals. So at one point in our review we debated our direction. Should we be seeking to influence government? Or should we take a bottom-up approach, focusing just on empowering individuals at the front line to stake bold steps and swim against the tide?
Because the tide is running in the wrong direction. Our review found conclusive evidence that services for children and young people with SLCN are in crisis. After a year of local area joint SEND inspections Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission found that access to therapy services was weak in half of the local areas inspected. This was worse than mental health provision, which was poor in around a third of the areas.
More than half of parents in our surveys told us that their child had to wait more than six months for the support they needed. A third waited more than a year. Some groups of children – those in secondary schools or post-16 provision- often get no specialist help at all. Services are increasingly clinic-based and inaccessible, and many of our most vulnerable children are effectively struck off from help because their parents don’t manage to bring them to appointments.
For the 1.4 million children with SLCN, this is a story we must continue to tell. And in the end, we decided that whilst our review should definitely seek to empower individuals on the front line with bold first steps they can all take to improve the situation, we should also develop intelligent recommendations for government action. The levers in the system are rusty; they need oiling so that they work better for children with SLCN.
So we have talked to those who hold the oil cans, from the Department for Education to NHS England to Public Health England and Ofsted. They have advised us on what might be possible; their response has been helpful, and the advice good. That is why I feel a degree of confidence that Bercow: Ten Years On can make a difference. Next time the story of the 1.4 million is told, it might just have a happy ending.
Jean’s work has focused on improving outcomes for children with significant difficulties in language, literacy and mathematics. Jean has promoted practitioner’s skills in inclusive teaching, and developed children’s social, emotional and behavioural skills through the SEAL (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning) whole-curriculum approach. She has been a visiting fellow at two universities and is currently an associate fellow at the University of Warwick. Jean’s work has focused on improving outcomes for children with significant difficulties in language, literacy and mathematics. Jean has promoted practitioner’s skills in inclusive teaching, and developed children’s social, emotional and behavioural skills through the SEAL (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning) whole-curriculum approach. She has been a visiting fellow at two universities and is currently an associate fellow at the University of Warwick.