Supporting speech, language and communication needs

Written by: Mary Hartshorne | Published:
Image: MA Education/Lucie Carlier

The recommendations from the Bercow: Ten Years On review can help primary schools to ensure that pupils’ speech, language and communication needs are properly supported. Mary Hartshorne explains

It is six months on from the launch of Bercow: Ten Years On – an independent review of provision for children and young people with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) in England.

I CAN the children’s communication charity, and the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT) who led the review are taking stock. The report drew on the evidence of more than 2,500 people who shared their experiences of support for SLCN, and with the majority of children receiving support in schools the report is particularly relevant to primary teachers and leaders.

The report paints an uncompromising picture of fragmented support, which is failing thousands of children by not identifying their needs early enough, nor putting in place the support they need. The recommendations which accompany the report are critical in putting the focus on change.

Aimed at strategic decision-makers, the recommendations are organised in the five themes which structure the report:

  • Communication is crucial to children’s life chances: yet awareness of its importance among the public and decision-makers is not sufficient. It was pleasing to see that children’s SLCN is increasingly prioritised in primary school development plans.
  • Strategic, system-wide change approaches to supporting SLCN are rare: very often SLCN does not feature in national or local policies. The curriculum, no longer having a separate programme of study for speaking and listening, may be having an impact. The Bercow: Ten Years On survey showed that 53 per cent of survey respondents did not feel that the way children learn in schools supports their spoken language development.
  • Services are inaccessible and inequitable: the review found a postcode lottery of services. What children got depended on where they lived, and sometimes on which school they went to. The increase in the number of schools commissioning speech and language support has led to some examples of good practice, but more variability.
  • Support that makes a difference is based on evidence of what works. However, service design and cuts frequently do not take account of this. Children and young people reported that they prefer to receive support in school, from people who know how to help them, yet more services are becoming clinic-based.
  • Too many children and young people with SLCN are missed and not getting the vital support they need: 48 per cent of people thought the expertise of school and early years staff to identify and support children and young people’s speech, language and communication was good or excellent. This is an improvement from 10 years ago, but still means that more than half feel the expertise is not there. More than half of children with language disorders are missed in primary schools.

All recommendations were shaped in conversation with the bodies and people to whom they were addressed. Picking up these conversations after the report launch has resulted in fruitful discussions with the early years, curriculum and SEND teams within the Department for Education, with Public Health England, with Ofsted HMIs responsible for inspector training in local authority SEND and schools inspections, and with the Education Endowment Foundation. Children and young people’s speech, language and communication are on the agenda.

So, with good engagement, the future could be promising. But what would this promising future look like in primary schools? One the key features of effective practice which came through strongly in the Bercow: Ten Years On review was the need for strong leadership and taking a strategic approach. In the examples below, this has been critical to moving practice forwards.

Muir Primary School

In June, I listened to a presentation about the strategic approach taken by Head of Muir Primary School in Falkirk in developing their provision for pupils with SLCN. They used The Balanced System, a framework and process across five strands – intervention, identification, workforce, environment and family support – and over three levels – universal, targeted and specialist.

It uses an “understand – plan and do – review” cycle so that the school could audit their existing practice and plan for change. Their action plan focused on developing relationships with parents, planning communication-supportive classrooms, and upskilling school staff.

Measuring the impact of what they did was key – and through engaging more effectively with parents, creating communication environments, and ensuring staff could use strategies, approaches and interventions they really accelerated children’s progress: children made on average 18 months’ progress in spoken language and 14 months in vocabulary over a year.

Reflecting on what had been critical in ensuring progress, the school identified strong leadership, but also the relationships that were built.

Collaboration in Kirkby

This is also something that is important to a cluster of 12 primary schools in Kirkby in Merseyside, who have joined together to commission a three-wave model of support from their local speech and language therapy service. Called A Chance to Talk in Kirkby, the speech and language therapist works closely with the schools offering a combination of training, advice, demonstration, developing and providing resources, and specialist support:

  • Wave 1: Initially one day of training for all schools, and then meetings to agree priorities for each school. During the rest of the year, training in twilights and staff meetings, and supporting staff to create communication supportive environments. Teachers have checklists which they use to monitor progress.
  • Wave 2: Teaching assistants are trained to deliver a targeted intervention for children with delayed language (I CAN’s Talk Boost KS1). The responsibility for this support sits with the schools, but the speech and language therapist offers support about how best to deliver and embed it in school. Online “Trackers” are completed by staff on pupils before and after a 10-week intervention to demonstrate progress.
  • Wave 3: One-to-one support with children who need more specialist support. Progress is measured using Therapy Outcomes Measures (TOMS).

The therapy and education team is currently working to measure the impact and benefit of this cluster-based model of commissioning. As well as pupil data, they are identifying less tangible but important benefits, such as less school time missed because of attending appointments, improved and efficient staff development as the therapist is part of the school team and can respond in real time to queries and concerns, a wealth of practical ideas as they are shared between schools, and improved progress as the therapist can adopt a more holistic approach and understand children’s language difficulties in the round.


With more schools following the example of Head of Muir and Kirkby, the future could indeed be bright. Keep up-to-speed with progress in Bercow: Ten Years On by following #Bercow10, or check out our resources online to help make a difference 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.

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