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A decade after John Bercow’s critical report on SLCN provision, Mandy Grist asks if much has changed

In primary schools, more children have speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) than any other SEN – a statistic that remains constant year on year. However, despite the fact that SLCN is so common, it is often the case that these children’s needs are misinterpreted or misunderstood and this can impact on the support they receive.

The implication of so many children and young people with SEN having difficulties with communication and language is huge. The ability to communicate and use language to both learn and enjoy daily life is crucial. The evidence relating to the importance of having good language skills for later learning is strong; vocabulary at age five, for example, is a strong predictor of the qualifications achieved at school leaving age and beyond. Poor communication and language skills at an early age can have a lifelong impact. 88 per cent of long-term unemployed men have speech, language and communication needs. This is why it is essential that children are given the support they need as early as possible, so they can reach their potential in school, but also importantly in terms of their self-esteem, their friendships and opportunities later into adulthood.

Support for children and young people with SLCN


Nearly ten years ago, John Bercow MP led a cross-government review of services for children and young people with SLCN. At that time, he found huge variability in services across local areas. He identified a significant need for the children’s workforce to understand the importance of speech, language and communication, how to identify problems as early as possible and put effective interventions in place. But since then, we have seen a significant overhaul to the education and health systems and considerable change in the landscape for children’s services. These changes, alongside devolution to local government and radical change to the way support for SEN and disabilities is provided has resulted in an unclear picture; is the situation better now than it was ten years ago?

To gain an understanding of how services have changed, I CAN, the children’s communication charity and the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists are producing Bercow: Ten Years On, an independent review into services for children and young people with SLCN. A core aim of the review is to learn from what is happening on the ground for children, young people and their families so we can identify and describe features of innovative, effective practice in supporting children and young people with SLCN and make recommendations for systemic change where needed.

An extensive evidence-gathering phase of the review took place throughout the first half of 2017, closing at the end of July. More than 2,500 people shared their views via a number of routes, including written evidence, online surveys, a number of oral evidence sessions and a series of focus groups with children and young people; practitioners, commissioners, families, employers all provided insight into their experiences of SLCN support. Evidence revealed stories of good practice and challenges around the themes of impact of poor support (youth offending, mental health and young people on the edge of care), services for very young children, commissioning, low incidence/high needs and social disadvantage. The data will be used to inform the outcomes of the review.

The focus of the review has now shifted; this phase includes analysis of evidence, assimilation of information and development of a set of hard-hitting recommendations and calls to action for a range of stakeholders. These will focus on local and national government, systems leaders and practitioners on the ground supporting children and young people with SLCN. A robust process of “testing” these out in a number of ways is in place to ensure that as well as being impactful they reflect challenges at each level.

What does the survey say?

At the time of the first Bercow review, the vision was that SLCN would become mainstreamed – an integral part of the fabric of services for children and young people. Has that happened? The truth is probably not, but there have been some positive developments. For example, in 2008, 30 per cent of respondents to the survey felt that expertise of school staff was good or excellent; ten years on, this has increased to 48 per cent. The evidence therefore tells us that we have a more confident workforce. Of course, positive steps haven’t been seen across the board and there is still more to do but there is a sense of moving in the right direction.

Analysis has identified consistent themes coming out of the evidence. The commissioning landscape has matured, and where it happens joint commissioning is effective, but it is rare. Financial cuts in local authorities have meant shrinking specialist services such as speech and language therapy, but although much more is known about the most effective models, cuts do not reflect this. As a result, provision is fragmented and not “joined up” leaving parents frustrated, with unacceptable difficulty accessing support.



In the most effective services, children’s SLCN is integrated into local strategy: children are routinely screened as early as 18 months; schools analyse their data knowing that poor progress in literacy, exclusion and mental health issues are red flags for SLCN; youth offending services know the prevalence of SLCN and screen in, not out; services regularly collect and analyse outcome data not just numbers of children seen or assessments carried out. Clearly, for many people there is still a need for the case to be made for prioritising, identifying and supporting SLCN; early identification and intervention can save money in the short- and long-term. 

Ten years on


Of course, recommendations arising from Bercow: Ten Years On must not only identify what will make the most difference for children and young people but also must identify the levers that will allow this to happen. For example, joint local area SEN and disability inspections are proving to be a driver for change; they provide a vehicle for highlighting best practice. But where practice is inadequate is there the potential to require a review resulting in a joint commissioning plan for SLCN? Is there the potential to share best practice through thematic reviews similar to those arising from Ofsted surveys in schools? 



The publication of the report in March 2018, along with supporting tools, resources and materials, will seek to provide a platform from which the issue of support for children and young people with SLCN can be highlighted and promoted, with the opportunity to influence and inform to make support for speech, language and communication everyone’s business.

Further information 


Mandy Grist is Project Manager of Bercow: Ten Years On, a review being conducted by I CAN, in partnership with the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, into the state of provision for children’s speech, language and communication needs (SLCN):
www.ican.org.uk/What-we-do/Bercow

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