A bold new initiative to put children’s speech, language and communication issues on the political map
In today’s society, the importance of communication skills can be seen in schools, the workplace, at home and in relationships. Speech and language are fundamental life skills that underpin learning, social and emotional well-being and future employability. Yet, one in ten children has some form of speech, language and communication need which means that they require some additional support to help them understand and be understood; that’s almost three pupils in every UK classroom.
In areas of social disadvantage, evidence suggests that upwards of 50 per cent of children are arriving at primary school with poor communication skills. This is particularly concerning as employers routinely report that good communication skills are their top priority. It is also known that speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) are the most common type of SEN for children with a statement of SEN in primary schools.
Whichever group children fall into, the fact is that, if these needs are unmet, they could face behavioural problems, a lack of attainment and isolation; in the worst cases, it could lead them to fall into the criminal justice system.
The Communication Trust
The Communication Trust, set up in 2007, emerged from the growing evidence-based consensus that SLCN represents one of the biggest pan-disability issues. Despite the evidence, though, it was apparent that many parents, teachers and commissioners did not know how communication develops from birth, were not able to recognise children who were struggling and did not know where to go for information and support.
The Trust’s membership comprises 38 organisations, including major UK charities such as The Children’s Society and Action for Children, and smaller grass roots organisations, like 1Voice and The Learning Partnership. It has received support from the Department of Children Schools and Families (DCSF), the Children’s Workforce Development Council (CWDC), BT and other funders.
In just three years, the Trust has worked on a wide range of projects to raise understanding of children’s communication development and improve the skills relating to communication needs of those working with children. One project has involved developing a Speech, Language and Communication Framework that helps identify the skills and knowledge necessary to support children’s communication. In another project, the Trust has worked with the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) to raise understanding and build confidence amongst secondary school teachers in supporting all children’s communication development.
Most recently, the Trust was given a mandate by Jean Gross, the newly appointed Communication Champion, to deliver an awareness campaign in 2011 which will ensure that the ability to communicate is embedded in the national psyche as a fundamental human right, on the same level as helping people to read, write and be healthy.
Campaigning for change
For the voluntary sector, this recognition and investment has not happened overnight. In 2006, Make Chatter Matter, a campaign run by children’s communication charity I CAN and supported by 65 other organisations, proved the power of awareness raising in putting SLCN on the political map.
This spearheaded a major shift in how the government prioritised the issue. It led to John Bercow MP being asked by the Prime Minister to lead a landmark review into services for children with SLCN. The Bercow Review produced a harrowing picture: thousands of parents reported a real sense of isolation and voiced concerns about a lack of information and inadequate services.
The Government responded in December 2008 with the Better Communication Action Plan (BCAP) which accepted in full John Bercow’s recommendations, including the appointment of a Communication Champion and the establishment of the forthcoming National Year of Communication.
Earlier this year, Jean Gross, a renowned campaigner, took up her post as Communication Champion. Jean’s focus over the next few months will be to work with and support commissioners in health and children’s services as they plan to meet the needs of local children and young people.
Building to 2011
Moving forwards, the National Year campaign will work to provide parents, carers and professionals with information on children’s communication and signpost sources of help and support.
The campaign will utilise the experience and expertise of the Communication Trust’s partners to extend the reach of mainstream initiatives, including: Afasic’s communication friendly schools, National Literacy Trust’s Talk to Your Baby campaign, I CAN’s Chatterbox Challenge for nurseries, schools and parenting groups, Ace Centre North’s guide for parents and professionals working with very young children with complex needs, and The Signalong Group’s Taking a Stand manual.
The campaign will build on the Trust’s existing work to support those working with children. The Trust wants to make sure that every child can communicate to their full potential and is seeking to recruit the right campaign partners to make this a reality.
The National Year is only the start of the journey. The Trust will work with the Government, commissioners and those working with children to create an irreversible shift in how children’s SLCN are viewed, leaving a powerful legacy for children with SEN and severe and complex speech, language and communications needs. It is hoped that, by working together, the voluntary sector can create a momentum around speech and language that will touch children and families in England in 2011 and beyond.
The National Year will only be a success if we all pull together to create a campaign that propels the issue of children’s communication development to the forefront of local and national agendas.
Anita Kerwin-Nye is a qualified teacher and youth worker, and has written several books on health and education. She has held senior positions in a number of major UK charities, including Head of Education at the British Red Cross and Director of Communications at children’s communication charity I CAN. She is currently the Voluntary Sector SLCN Representative on the Communication Council and Director of the Communication Trust.
The Communication Trust is keen to hear from interested parties with ideas on what the national Year of Communication should aim to achieve, and how to make this happen. You can follow developments and contact the Trust by visiting: