Alison Morton Blog Picture

Breaking Down Barriers in Speech, Language and Communication

‘Best Start In Life’ Programme Manager at Public Health England (PHE) Alison Morton lays out the partnership between the Department for Education (DFE) and the PHE and how they are supporting the work of Bercow: Ten Years On in tackling speech, communication and language barriers.


Two years ago, the Early Intervention Foundation published a powerful review of the evidence on early language development. The review made the case for speech, language and communication skills to be recognised as a primary indicator of child well-being due to the link between language and other social, emotional and learning outcomes.

The increased awareness of the importance of early language, alongside the publication of the Bercow Ten Years On (2018) report on the state of provision for children’s speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) in England, has led to considerable national and local initiatives to ensure that every child is supported to achieve their potential.

The Secretary of State has set out an ambition to improve early language and by 2028, to reduce the percentage of children who do not achieve at least expected levels across all goals in the ‘communication & language’ and ‘literacy’ areas of learning at the end of reception year by half.

There are a number of local areas in England that are already delivering good examples of services working together to meet the needs of children with SLCN and the PHE has been working with these sites to learn more about what is working well in practice. We’ve also been working alongside experts from a range of disciplines with expertise in speech and language, including I CAN and The Communications Trust.

Gaps in early language development can be recognised by the time children are two years old and they have a more visible impact by the time they enter school. With almost half of children starting school in areas of highest deprivation with SLCN, it’s clear that there’s more we can do to ensure all children are supported to achieve the best start in life.

All professionals working with children and their families have a role to play in tackling learning gaps. The most effective services integrate the work of health visitors, speech and language therapists, Children’s Centre staff, early years’ practitioners and school staff, who work together to ensure that age-appropriate support is provided to children with all levels of SLCN.

Evidence shows the importance of supporting two-way, everyday interactions between the child and their main care-givers to build skills in communicating and developing relationships.

This starts in the womb and continues throughout the early years. Evidence also highlights the importance of professionals working together to identify children who may be struggling to develop their communication skills and the value of intervening through a range of interventions to support language development.

It is common for very young children to outgrow initial language delays, although it is difficult to predict when and how this will occur. It is therefore important to ensure that children with enduring difficulties are monitored and supported throughout their transition to school.

What’s being done to help? Over recent months it’s been fantastic to see so much engagement between a number of large organisations, professional bodies and charities in support of the government’s social mobility ambition. This sets out three domains of focus to improve child outcomes; the home; local services, including NHS and public health services and Early Years settings.

Public Health England is leading three programmes of work to:

• Equip health visitors with enhanced knowledge around SLCN and skills to support families with evidence-based activities. Training started in February 2019 to selected sites, with wider roll-out later this year. Health visitors will be able to share this training both within their team and further afield by using their extensive networks. This training will also enhance local working partnerships – particularly between health visiting, early years and speech and language therapists – who all make a huge difference to children and families

• Develop, pilot and evaluate an early language assessment tool and resources to support health visitors and early years’ practitioners to identify and support children with SLCN. The tool will be disseminated early in 2020

• Develop a model speech language and communication pathway for services for children – from pregnancy through to the end of their first year in school, built on the best evidence and experience of implementation in practice. This will be published early summer 2019.

Throughout local communities there are many examples of the benefits of greater collaborative working between health visitors, Early Years practitioners, SLTs and most importantly parents, which we have been able to learn from.

Listening to parents and children with SLCN provides valuable insight into their experiences and an opportunity to ensure real joined-up learning to improve services and outcomes – a collection of peer reviewed case study examples of what is working well in practice will be published with the SLCN pathway.

Early language matters – look out for these resources and find out what is going on in your area and how you can get involved in this shared ambition to ensure every child has the best start in life.