Speech, language and communication needs – how does your school measure up?

Written by: Mary Hartshorne | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Effective support for children with speech, language and communication needs is essential, but how does your school measure up? Ten years on from the Bercow Review, Mary Hartshorne looks at the situation today and gives primary schools a checklist for best practice

Every year, excellent practice in supporting children with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) are celebrated at the Shine a Light awards ceremony. This year’s primary school winner was Pendle Primary Academy in Lancashire.

Listening to them describing how they put talk at the heart of every aspect of their school, you sense how they have prioritised children’s spoken language. They are serious enough about it to have invested in their own speech and language therapist – not just for those pupils who have SLCN, but also for staff training and whole school approaches.

As a result, the school is now above the national average in reading and prides itself on creating confident young communicators.

Pendle is not alone in recognising the importance of spoken language, a report released last year showed that teachers in schools across the country feel that oracy is critically important (Millard & Menzies, 2016). This reflects the fact that speech, language and communication are foundation life-skills, underpinning literacy, learning, social and emotional development. Vocabulary at age five is the most important factor affecting literacy at age 11 (Save the Children, 2016), and is also linked with improved mental health and employability into adulthood (Law et al, 2009).

Yet for many children, developing these essential skills is not easy. We know that in areas of deprivation, 50 per cent of children have poor language skills. As well as this, 10 per cent of all children have long-term SLCN – needs which have a significant impact on their learning, ability to make friends and to manage their emotions. Just 15 per cent of pupils with SLCN achieve expected standards in reading, writing and maths at the end of key stage 2.

Worryingly, many people are simply not aware of the importance of children’s speech, language and communication, nor of the numbers with SLCN, particularly those who make decisions about support needed.
This was a major finding of the Bercow Ten Years On report, launched in March. Led by I CAN, the children’s communication charity, and the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT), the report draws on the evidence of more than 2,500 people who shared their experiences of support for SLCN.

It comes a decade on from the government-backed review led by John Bercow MP in 2008. At that time the review found high variability of provision across England and limited joint working across health and education (Bercow, 2008).

Ten years on, there has certainly been change and some of it positive. For example, there is a rise in the numbers of school staff feeling confident in identifying and supporting children’s SLCN. However, there has also been wholesale reform to the education and special education systems. Speaking and listening no longer has its own programme of study, and there is no statutory requirement to report on progress in children’s spoken language beyond the age of five.

It is difficult not to link these facts with some of the review findings: 53 per cent of people responding to the review survey felt that the way children learn in school does not support their spoken language, and in a survey of school Ofsted reports, none reported on progress in spoken language.

Overall, the report paints a picture of fractured specialist services, with many school advisory services disbanded and only 15 per cent of respondents reporting that speech and language therapy was available as required.

People told of the challenges of ensuring high-quality, effective practice in a context of huge change and of financial constraints. It found a postcode lottery with the level and type of support available dependent on where children live or what school they go to.

The result of all of this? Too many children and young people with SLCN are missed – as many as half of children in primary schools (Hartshorne, 2017) – meaning they don’t get the support they need to do well at school.

Thankfully, the review also heard many examples of really effective practice – services, schools and settings who were really making a difference for children with SLCN. Not surprisingly, with every school or local area being different, there was no single template for success. Instead, key features of effective practice have been drawn from the evidence. Based on this evidence, the report calls for change taking a top down and bottom-up approach.

Top-down: Integrated, systemic change

Change will only happen if children’s speech, language and communication are embedded in national and local policy. So, recommendations include training for Ofsted that includes a focus on SLCN, and there are several asks to the Department for Education: a national programme of training for staff working in schools and assurance that there will be a requirement to understand how to support SLCN in the proposed structured early career content framework for NQTs.

Bottom-up: Calls to action

The report calls for everyone: speech and language therapists, parents, young people, early years practitioners as well as teachers and school leaders to take bold first steps. The website accompanying the report hosts suggestions for taking action, and also a wide range of resources to help with this: templates, information sheets, guidance and signposting.

One of the information sheets encourages schools to reflect on their own SLCN support using the key features emerging from the review evidence. There is information about all of these key features on the report website (see further information). Take a minute to reflect here on how your school would fare against them:

  • Is SLCN mentioned specifically in your SEN information report? Given that most children with SEND have SLCN, this is a key recommendation of the review (suggested wording that can be lifted and included is provided).
  • Do you have a lead for speech, language and communication? This could be a language and literacy lead, a member of the leadership team leading the development of oracy across the curriculum, the school SENCO coordinating training in SLCN, or a higher level teaching assistant as communication lead for the school. The important thing is that someone or, even better, a team of people focus on the issue of SLCN.
  • Does speech, language and communication run through other related policies? In the best examples schools reported that language was embedded in literacy, behaviour, wellbeing approaches rather than something that was just ticked off on a list.
  • Is there a rolling programme of training for staff in SLCN? There was agreement across people who submitted evidence that one-off training sessions were not effective. Training needed to be part of school’s INSET programme, with a focus on building skill and expertise through modelling, coaching, learning walks, observations.
  • Do all staff know how to identify and support pupils with SLCN? Many people told of initiatives to create “communication-friendly” settings where all quality first teaching is language-focused. Some schools invested in universal screening for SLCN, which in turn informed whole-school planning.
  • Are there ways that pupils tell you the kind of support they feel makes a difference? As part of the review, a series of focus groups gathered the views of children and young people about the support they received for SLCN – they were consistent in reporting what did and did not help. The resources used to do this are now available for all schools to use.
  • Do you work with your local speech and language therapy team? In the best examples, speech and language therapists were seen as a member of the school team rather than a visiting professional. There were benefits for the school where staff developed their knowledge and expertise, for parents who understood more clearly that good therapy provision is not all about individual sessions, and for therapists themselves who had a better understanding of the “bigger picture” for pupils.
  • Do you know the impact of SLCN interventions? The review found that only 15 per cent of survey respondents collected and shared evidence of outcomes. In the most effective schools, this was part of the culture with some schools reporting impact after using Pupil Premium funding for interventions. For example, Worcestershire schools have a website where schools can share their effective practice.
  • Are there ways to track progress in spoken language? It was encouraging to hear from schools that were using available resources such as the Communication Trust’s Communicating the Curriculum or posters of language development to do this.
  • Do you work with parents to ensure continuity of approach for children’s communication? More than 600 parents submitted evidence to the review. They felt the most impactful practice was where teachers took a real interest in needs, listened to their goals, asked questions, suggested training, problem-shared the issues which arose, and jointly set targets.
  • Is there support for pupils’ SLCN at three levels? The review showed great variability between schools where some leaders saw SLCN as a priority, but where others commissioned support on a temporary basis. There is now commissioning guidance available for schools so they can plan whole-school approaches, targeted support for some children, and more specialist interventions for those with more complex SLCN.

What next?

The aim is that there is something for everyone to do. If, when answering the questions above, you felt there was more to find out, visit the website below to read the report and look at the resources so that you can have conversations in your school, but also with your local authority, trust or confederation. You can also sign the petition to get a debate about children’s SLCN in Parliament.

Join I CAN and RCSLT in making a commitment to make change happen – put children’s SLCN high on the agenda and make a difference not just to children with SLCN but also to all pupils in your school.

  • Mary Hartshorne is head of evidence for I CAN, a national children’s communication charity. She is a specialist speech and language therapist with experience of working in education. She is also is leading Bercow: Ten Years On – the national review of provision for children and young people with SLCN, which was published March 2018.

Further information


  • The State of Speaking in Our Schools, Millard & Menzies, November 2016: http://bit.ly/2HsJGCE
  • The Lost Boys: How boys are falling behind in their early years, Save the Children, July 2016: http://bit.ly/2vHmSNO
  • Modeling Developmental Language Difficulties From School Entry Into Adulthood: Literacy, Mental Health, and Employment Outcomes, Law, Rush, Schoon & Parsons, Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, December 2009: http://bit.ly/2vBAGJC
  • The Bercow Review, John Bercow MP, 2008: www.rcslt.org/about/campaigns/bercow_review
  • Children with Language Disorders: Missed Or Mis-Identified? Mary Hartshorne, Huffington Post UK Edition, January 2017 (Updated January 2018): http://bit.ly/2HJU5Nl

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