1st January 2010 at 00:00
Frances Cook manages the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children, the biggest facility specialising in the speech problem in the world

Why did you become a speech and language therapist?

As I was about to leave school, I met a speech therapist who had been working in the Canary Islands and I thought "that'll do me". When I found out I would be studying psychology, physiology, neurology, linguistics and phonetics I was even more interested. I also wanted to be able to get a job as soon as I qualified.

How did you get involved with the Michael Palin Centre?

In the late 70s I worked in London with Lena Rustin, a pioneering speech and language therapist who was passionate about creating specialist services for young people who stammer. There were none at that time. (The comedian and presenter) Michael Palin's father had a stammer, and he became our vice-president in 1993. When the centre opened we had one part-time speech therapist, now we have 13. We are the biggest centre specialising in stammering in the world.

What are the main challenges facing pupils who stammer in mainstream schools?

The oral nature of the curriculum is difficult for all children with speech, language and communications needs. But stammering triggers people to laugh, mimic or mock. Children who stammer can face teasing from their peers when they try to speak in class. They can stop asking or answering questions and this affects the way that a teacher perceives their abilities. Many teachers either haven't met or don't know they have met a child who stammers and they have no idea how to help.

What are typical characteristics of a child with a stammer?

Children who stammer are a complete cross section, they are just normal kids who happen to have a speech problem. The strange thing about stammering is that it varies from day to day and situation to situation.

Children try desperately hard to disguise their stammer. They will often be very quiet in the classroom, they will give very short answers, they will say "I don't know" when clearly they do, they won't want to be in the school play. They may seem anxious and withdrawn. These children have the same range of abilities as all other children - except for the devastating problem of not being able to speak when they need to.

What advice would you give to teachers?

As soon as you recognise there is a problem, take the child aside and have a one-to-one, personal conversation. Never discuss it in front of the class. Invite the parents in and talk to them and the child about how you can best help. Some children like the teacher to finish their words, others absolutely loathe it. Some want the class to know, others don't. You can ask: "Would you like to tell me on a day when you want to read aloud?" The really awful thing is having to answer the register, so you can ask the children to raise their hands instead. Work to the child's strengths; giving praise will boost a child's confidence and help the stammer. A stammer is helped or broken at school. That is the key time, and the teachers are the most influential people in the child's life.

Does the current curriculumeducation framework help or impede the development of children who stammer?

The emphasis on oral work can impede their development. Many children who stammer will be terrified of being asked to talk. They won't perform as well as they could, their grades will suffer, opportunities will be lost and they won't fulfil their potential.

Tell us about the Stammering Information Programme ...

Schools Secretary Ed Balls came to the centre in 2007. He met a teenage girl who was struggling to speak. She said she never had help from her teachers, she said they just didn't understand. He was very shocked. The Department for Children, Schools and Families came back and asked us to raise awareness across the entire educational workforce in the UK so that children who stammer get the best help in schools. We produced a DVD in which the children tell the teachers the best ways they can help children who stammer.

What have you learnt in your work that you would want others to know?

A key skill and a very powerful thing in all areas of life is to be a constructive listener, to hear the other person's point of view before jumping in, to understand that there are two or three ways of looking at a situation, to be able to see things from other people's perspectives.

What is the worst excuse you have come across?

The parent who phoned in November to say that they wouldn't be able to make an appointment in January in case the weather was bad.

What would you do if you were Schools Secretary for a day?

I would include a module about speech and language needs in teacher training. Teachers who are skilled and knowledgeable about children with speech, language and communication needs would transform their lives

To get a free copy of the Michael Palin Centre DVD, call 0207 530 4238 or email Alternatively, download it


1993-present: Specialist therapist and now manager at the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children

1995: Certificate in cognitive therapy

1986-92: Specialist speech therapist, Bloomsbury, Hampstead and Islington District Health Authority

1980-86: Chief speech therapist, Camden and Islington Area Health Authority

1980: Master of Science in Human Communication Studies

1975-80: Therapist at Camden and Islington AHA, Central School of Speech and Drama, City Literary Institute

1974: Specialist speech therapist for adults who stammer, Prince Henry Hospital, Sydney, Australia

1972: Speech therapist, Durban, South Africa

1970: Diploma, College of Speech Therapists, Speech therapist, Glasgow Royal Infirmary.

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