Children with speech and language needs face postcode lottery

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Despite a government pledge to tackle the “word gap” between rich and poor children, the amount being spent to support a child with speech and language difficulties varies from as little as £31 to as much as £291 a year depending on where they live.

Closing the vocabulary gap and supporting speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) is crucial to improving children’s academic outcomes and life chances.

However, a report from the children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has revealed a postcode lottery in terms of the amount being spent on speech and language therapy (SLT) services.

This means huge variation in the support that children receive and how long they must wait to access services.

In 2018/19, councils and clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) spent an estimated £166 million on SLT services – £10.12 per child.

However, this varies from at least £16.35 per child in the top 25 per cent of areas to 58p or less per child in the bottom 25 per cent.

Among children with an identified speech and language need, the top local authorities spent at least £291 per child – the worst spent £31 or less.

Furthermore, across the country, 57 per cent of areas saw a real-terms decrease in spending on SLT between 2016/17 and 2017/18.

This is despite the government’s 2017 Social Mobility Action Plan, which included pledges to tackle the word gap in the early years.

This agenda has important implications for schools given the link between vocabulary skills and outcomes. The report highlights existing research findings showing that:

  • Children with poor vocabulary skills are twice as likely to be unemployed when they grow up
  • More than 60 per cent of children who end up in Young Offender Institutions have communication difficulties.
  • For those children identified as having Speech, Language and Communications Needs (SLCN) as their primary SEN, only 28 per cent reach a good level of development at the end of Reception (compared to 72 per cent of all pupils).
  • And only 21 per cent of these pupils achieve grade 4 or above in English and maths GCSEs (compared to 64 per cent of all pupils).

The report shows that currently 18 per cent of five-year olds are not reaching the expected development levels in communication at the end of the early years – this figure rises to 23 per cent among poorer children (those eligible for free school meals).

Previous Department for Education research has suggested that, by the age of seven, the gap in the vocabulary known by children in the top and bottom income quartiles is something like 4,000 words, with children in the top quartile knowing around 7,000 words.

Ms Longfield said: “Communication skills are vital for children starting school and for improving social mobility throughout a child’s education. We should be very concerned that almost one in five children aged five is behind in speech and language development and yet more than half of areas in England have seen a real-terms fall in spending on speech and language therapy in recent years.

“Those who fail to receive help are at greater risk of falling behind in education, or developing behavioural problems. There are far too many children who have ended up in youth custody, who had speech and language problems at school.

“The next prime minister must make school readiness a priority if we are to give all children the chance to thrive. A well-resourced strategy for addressing speech, language and communication needs must be part of that.”

Ms Longfield’s report also finds that only half of health and local authorities in England are jointly commissioning services, even though they are expected to do so for children with identified SEN.

The report urges the government to begin collecting data on local authority expenditure on SLT services. It also recommends that the government should require all local areas to have a strategic plan to “assess the level of children’s speech and language need in their area, giving particular consideration to disadvantaged children”.

This plan, the report adds, should outline how they intend to meet need, including support for parents to help their children communicate.

Commenting on the report, Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “Significant financial pressures on councils’ public health and special needs budgets is severely impacting on their ability to support children with early language development.

“Public health budgets have been cut by £700 million while councils face a special needs funding gap of up to £1.6 billion by 2021, which we urge the government to address in the Spending Review (this autumn).

“Councils are also working closely with local early education and childcare providers and Clinical Commissioning Groups to make sure children are ready to start school, but insufficient funding is impacting on the quality of provision and support for children with special needs, as providers struggle to balance budgets.”


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