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Identifying Speech, Language and Communication Needs: the first step to positive outcomes

Mary Hartshorne,  I CAN’s Head of Impact, explain why the latest statistics on children with speech, language and communications needs may be more positive than they first appear. 

On 4 July 2019, the Department for Education published the latest statistics on special educational needs in England. They showed that, at 22% of SEN pupils, Speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) is now the most common primary type of need reported in schools. What’s more, it’s on the rise. The number of pupils with SEN has increased by around 3.3% between January 2018 and January 2019, while the number of pupils with SLCN has increased by almost 6% in the same period.

So how do we explain this rise? Well, it’s most likely not a rise in numbers of children and young people with SLCN, but an increase in identification. And this is a good thing. Identified early and with right intervention, children with SLCN can do well. We have growing evidence of the effectiveness of support for children with delayed language, and for those with longer-term SLCN.

However, there is still a significant number of children and young people with SLCN who are not identified.

In total, the DfE statistics show that 3.2% of all pupils have SLCN identified as their main need. Broken down that’s 4.3% in state funded primary schools, and 1.4% in secondary schools. Given the knowledge that 7.6% of children have developmental language disorder (DLD), this suggests that a lot of children are being missed.

In 2018, when I CAN and the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists led Bercow Ten Years On, a national review of provision for children and young people with SLCN, one of the main  findings was concern over children not being identified. In our survey, just 12% of parents said their child’s difficulties were identified by a professional, and half of parents said their child’s needs were not picked up early enough.

So why is this? A range of reasons have been suggested: the lack of sensitivity of   used, lack of knowledge or confidence in practitioners, children’s needs mistaken as something else such as a behaviour or literacy issue. With increasingly stretched resources, some feel that one of the reasons that children seem to be ‘missed’ is the fact that identification may not actually result in action.

These were some of the issues we aimed to tackle in the recommendations arising from Bercow: Ten Years On, and the good news is that there is a lot happening to change the way young children with SLCN are identified – both at a strategic level and on the ground. The Government’s early years social mobility plan has children’s early language running right through it. In particular, there is a focus on strengthening early identification through the training for health visitors, development of a national SLCN pathway, and of an early language assessment tool.

However, identification is not the end of the journey. There is no point in identifying children with SLCN if there is no subsequent action. That’s why it’s great to see the work being done by the EYSEND consortium, bringing together people in local areas to plan their local speech, language and communication pathway. This will plot out points at which identification occurs with clear signposts to relevant and timely intervention.

This work for children aged 0-5 is all good to see, but there is more yet to be done. 10% of children with SLCN have long-term needs, and we know that some children’s needs only come to light at primary or even secondary school.

So how can you identify SLCN in older children? There’s now a range of useful ways to check children’s SLCN and monitor progress available from early years to secondary, the Communication Trust has produced useful guidance for identifying SLCN and some areas have planned identification into their pathway right across the age range.

Let’s hope the increase in pupils reported as having SLCN reflects this increase in identification – and hope for a continued upwards trajectory.