Communication is crucial. It underpins every child's ability to attain, succeed and make friends, but it doesn't just happen - it needs to be taught and nurtured.
Last week I reported on my Review of Services for Children and Young People (0-19) with Speech, Language and Communication Needs, which highlighted a silent issue that is affecting the life chances of millions.
Conducting the first review on this subject in seven years, we found that in some deprived areas of the UK, 50 per cent of children are starting school with poor language skills, inadequate for the start of formal learning, and that there is insufficient provision currently in place to help.
Within this group, we also found out that 7 per cent, equating to 40,000 children a year, have speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). This issue affects three times as many children as dyslexia and ten times as many as autism, yet remains complicated, misunderstood and hidden to most parents and teachers.
One key thread that ran through months of consultation, with over 2,000 responses, was that early identification and intervention are essential in the fight against poor communication.
According to recent research, children whose language difficulties are recognised and resolved by the 'golden age' of five-and-a-half are more likely to go on to develop good reading and spelling skills. Also, if children have a solid foundation in speaking and listening, the primary curriculum is less alien, and key social and interaction skills in the playground will come naturally.
Therefore, the early years workforce is of paramount importance. Time and again, we see examples of children who have had the necessary help 'catch up' with their peers and achieve academic success. Programmes including Somerset Total Communication and I CAN's Early Talk are designed to work within nurseries and pre-school settings to develop practitioners' skills and knowledge of children's communication through training, mentoring and service development.
This will go a long way to creating a generation of great communicators. The alternative is unthinkable. A child who does not benefit from early intervention faces multiple social exclusion risks, which may manifest in lower educational attainment, behavioural problems, emotional and psychological difficulties, poor employment prospects and possible descent into criminality.
This is why I have placed such emphasis on early intervention, with key recommendations for surveillance at transition and a review of the 'red book' to include monitoring of key speech and language milestones.
It is also why I'm extremely heartened that the Government has heeded my message of early intervention and invested £40m in the Every Child a Talker initiative. But we need to go further. My report calls for more specialist help for those 40,000 children with SLCN.
While doing the media rounds last week, I encountered five-year-old Lilly Thomas on the BBC Breakfast sofa. Her mother Sally made some great points that really hit home and brought alive the story of so many families. She said it is important that the gains made during specialist early intervention must not be allowed to get lost once a child starts primary school, that there should be a seamless transition between pre-school and Key Stage One, and that screening for SLCN at this key milestone is essential. I fully accept and embrace all of these points within the review recommendations.
At her I CAN Early Years Centre, Lilly had turned from a shy and withdrawn toddler into a talkative little girl. But after just a few months of speech therapy once she started primary school, funding was stopped and Sally had to continue to intervene at home. Sadly, this story was all too familiar to me, having met many parents on the road while compiling evidence during the consultation period.
Although there is an enormous emphasis on the early years, my review also reminds us that the thread of language runs throughout the entire curriculum, from the first day at pre-school to A-level exam time, and that good communication skills are vital at every age and stage. Those five years at secondary school, where learning becomes even more structured, complicated and language-based, also need plenty of consideration.
The ability to communicate is key to every success and attainment. When was the last time a job advertisement didn't ask for 'excellent communication skills'? It is fundamental to our humanity and central to the quest to improve life chances in the 21st century.
Review of Services for Children and Young People (0-19) with Speech, Language and Communication Needs can be viewed at: www.dcsf.gov.uk/bercowreview/index.shtml
Advice on children's speech, language and communication can be found at:
- I CAN, the children's communication charity, www.ican.org.uk
- Talking Point, www.talkingpoint.org.uk
- Afasic, www.afasic.org.uk
- The Communication Trust, www.communicationhelppoint.org.uk
- Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, www.rcslt.org.uk
- The British Stammering Association, www.stammering.org