Can you hear me? I need help

20th October 2006 at 01:00
Speech therapy has transformed one boy's life, but a freeze on funding means others may not be so lucky

When eight-year-old Brandon Turvey first started at Ashmead school he could barely string a sentence together and struggled to understand basic requests from his teachers.

Four years later, he feels confident about speaking in class thanks to a one-hour session each week with a speech and language therapist.

Unfortunately, younger pupils at the school in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, may not get such specialist help - and nor may thousands of others across England.

Schools in several local education authorities are reporting that their local primary care trusts cannot fund more speech therapists because of cash-flow difficulties. Vale of Aylesbury primary care trust told Ashmead school last year that it could not accommodate any new referrals because of a budget freeze and lack of staff.

Jane Loder, headteacher of Ashmead, said she had four pupils - including Brandon -who were entitled to speech and language therapy on account of their special needs but that it did not seem to be available to other children. She said: "We've got another 25 children in key stage 1 who have problems and we want to refer them to a specialist to see if they warrant a statement, but we can't.

"If children cannot communicate and express themselves orally, then they can't write or spell either. We feel we are failing our children if we cannot get them the help they need."

Similar problems have been reported by schools in London. Martin Tune, head of Bonner primary school in Bethnal Green, east London, said that about a dozen pupils in his school had persistent speech problems but only a few of them were allocated appointments with therapists this year.

Jane MacKenzie, of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, said 78 per cent of speech and language managers had their budgets frozen or cut for this academic year. Of the 700 trainee speech and language therapists who graduated this year, only 140 have found jobs.

"As many as 50 per cent of children with speech problems in some areas are not getting the help they need because of this," Ms MacKenzie said.

The speech charity I CAN warns that the 40,000 primary pupils with communication problems could cost the nation pound;26 billion. Its estimate includes spending on benefits, training and the criminal justice system as poor communications skills often lead to low academic achievement, social exclusion and crime.

Aylesbury primary care trust has now merged with three others to form Buckinghamshire PCT. A spokesman said the recruitment freeze and merger were part of national changes to reduce overheads, and that service provision was being revised.

Ceri Jay, special needs co-ordinator at Ashmead, said she was glad that Brandon, at least, was getting the support he needed.

"Without it he would have really struggled and probably withdrawn completely," she said.


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