A perfect storm - Bercow: ten years on

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Ten years ago, a landmark study was published on speech and language development. A follow-up report is being prepared for next year, with parents now invited to submit evidence to a panel. Hannah Crown speaks to its chair

Imagine not being able to say how you feel or what you need. For young children, never having properly developed this ability often leads to low self-esteem and poor social skills, according to communication charity I CAN. Speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) have a strong correlation with behavioural problems, mental health issues, poor employment or training prospects, and youth crime.

The Government seized the speech and language mantle in 2008 when MP John Bercow, whose eldest son has special educational needs, was asked to lead a review into provision for children and young people with SCLN.

His review found a ‘highly unsatisfactory’ picture of services. It said, ‘Access to information and services is often poor, services themselves are very mixed, continuity across the age range is lacking, effective joint working between the health and education services is rare and there is something of a postcode lottery across the country. Above all, local commissioners attach a low priority to the subject.’

Many of the 40 recommendations in the final report were accepted by the Government, but last year, research from University College London found that around 6 per cent of Year 1 children still experience a ‘clinically significant’ language disorder that impacts learning.

The Bercow report had cited a similar figure (though from a different survey) – approximately 7 per cent of five-year-olds entering school had significant difficulties with speech and/or language in 2007. So has anything actually changed?

To find out, ICAN, in partnership with the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT), has launched an inquiry to inform the publication of a new report, Bercow: Ten Years On.

jean-grossIt will be led by Jean Gross (pictured right), appointed communication champion following the publication of the original report in 2008. She is now steering a panel which is collecting evidence from early years practitioners, parents and others, and expects to publish its findings in early 2018.

AREAS OF CONCERN

The policy landscape of 2017 is very different from 2008, when Sure Start Centres were in the ascendancy and the financial crash and ensuing austerity programme had not yet hit. I CAN’s chief executive Bob Reitemeier told the Huffington Post that ‘momentum has been lost’.

Ms Gross tells Nursery World that reduced budgets of councils, health services and schools have created ‘a perfect storm’. She says, ‘The review lasts a year and aims to cover both what is working well – there is this nursery practitioner doing this fantastic work – and what is not working.

‘The first point of concern is that the new system for funding early years settings means local authorities have to pass on [more of the] funding to early years settings and no longer retain funding they have often used really well for SLCN.’

Councils have also used money to commission private speech and language therapists to train staff in children’s centres and settings. ‘What I’ve heard is that is now at risk unless they can find extra money,’ Ms Gross says.

There are many successful training schemes, such as Stoke Speaks Out. Under the scheme, a team gave language-development training to a wide range of people who come into contact with young children across Stoke-on-Trent – from librarians, museum staff and firefighters to early years professionals and children’s centre staff. The results were dramatic – the percentage of three- to four-year-olds with language delay fell from 64 per cent in 2004 to 39 per cent in 2010.

But while Stoke-on-Trent City Council has pledged more funding for the scheme, it is proposing to cut funding for the children’s centres, whose staff receive the training. Budget documents for 2017 say a funding shortfall of £0.7m means ‘these services will need to be significantly rationalised to focus on our most vulnerable families’, with 61 jobs at risk and six facilities relocated. The council has said it is willing to consider looking at ways of raising funds, such as introducing a nominal charge for some parents, in order to keep more of the provision.

There have been concrete gains nationally since the original Bercow report – speech and language is a Prime Area in the EYFS, ‘which means it links to Ofsted, who so frequently comment on good practice with SLC’, while schemes that create highly trained communication champions in early years settings are particularly effective, Ms Gross adds.

And there were measurable improvements – a 2011 Bercow update found that across the country, the percentage of five-year-olds showing very significant difficulties on the ‘language for communication and thinking’ scale of the EYFS Profile had reduced from 4 per cent to 3 per cent.

Commissioning

Since Bercow mark 1, some aspects of joint commissioning have been embedded in statute. The Children and Families Act 2014 says local authorities and clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) must make joint commissioning arrangements for education, health and care provision for children and young people with SEN or disabilities. Speech and language services are seen as community health services, which means CCGs hold the budget for commissioning them.

For non-SEND children, however, it is thought unlikely CCGs will commission universal prevention programmes, such as Stoke Speaks Out. Ms Gross notes that ‘there is a high risk that no-one will commission therapy services to undertake this work unless CCGs understand that if they don’t, they will just end up spending more on specialist help for children’.

Despite some instances of joint commissioning, CCGs are ‘increasingly commissioning speech and language therapists [SLTs] just at the specialist end for conditions like Down’s syndrome, and not funding them for children who just have a simple developmental language disorder. They are not funding them to provide training. Generally it is hard for CCGs to see it is their job [to fund SLTs],’ Ms Gross adds.

GET INVOLVED

Early years practitioners can contribute directly by taking part in a ten-minute survey, while the review is now asking for parents’ submissions.

Activity packs can be filled in by parents under the guidance of practitioners. Ms Gross says, ‘We always want to hear from everybody, but I want to get beyond the usual suspects. I am very keen that we hear from parents who wouldn’t normally go online and fill in a survey.

‘I would love [to see] practitioners in settings sitting down with parents of children with SLC needs and going through the questions with them. A lot of parents will not access SLT – they get referred to a clinic that is miles away so they don’t go, and we want to hear from them as well.

‘I know that early years practitioners and children’s centre staff are able to help with that.’

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