There are about 10,000 speech and language therapists (SLTs) in the UK. Some specialise in helping adults, but the majority spend at least part of their week working with young people, either in dedicated clinics or in schools.
It's varied work. For example, there's a clear distinction between speech therapy and language therapy. A child with speech difficulties might stammer, lisp or have trouble pronouncing certain letters. What they find difficult is forming sounds correctly. On the other hand, children with language difficulties may speak perfectly well, but struggle to string words together, or have limited vocabulary. About 5 per cent of children enter school with speech or language difficulties - sometimes both.
"Teachers tend to be most concerned about children with speech impediments," says Caroline Rendle, an SLT in Edinburgh. "But often you have to put other language skills in place first." Ms Rendle works in primary schools across the city, with children who have Down's syndrome, dyspraxia or other cognitive learning difficulties. She also makes home visits to children with cerebral palsy, who have difficulty eating or swallowing - another part of an SLT's remit.
As well as helping children directly, in groups or one-to-one, a key part of her job is training classroom teachers and assistants. "Teamwork is important. You have to give teachers the skills and confidence to help children on a day-to-day basis. We sit down together and try to come up with a programme tailored to each child's needs. Of course, if a child changes teacher or gets a new assistant, then it can be back to square one," she says.
Most therapists are employed by the NHS, but some are employed directly by education services. Not surprisingly, it's a highly regulated profession. To work as an SLT you need to have a recognised speech and language therapy degree or postgraduate qualification. Another possibility is to become a speech and language therapy assistant, working alongside an SLT, in the same way a teaching assistant works alongside a teacher. You don't need specific qualifications to be an assistant, and it's a good chance to see first-hand what's involved.
"I worked as an assistant for a year, which convinced me that I should sign up for the postgraduate qualification," says Hannah Bailey, now a speech and language therapist in Hackney.
"I already had a biomedical degree, which was useful, but certainly not essential. There were people on the course from all kinds of backgrounds, including teachers, actors and linguists."
Ms Bailey spends four days a week in Whitmore Primary School, working mainly with autistic children. "It's very rewarding. Some of them don't speak at all, but communicate non-verbally, through signs and symbols. The work we do is aimed at helping them understand social norms of communication, so that they're able to access subjects in a mainstream setting."
"Some children make progress quickly, but in other cases it's gradual. An important part of the job is managing people's expectations and making sure teachers don't get discouraged. "A good therapist will notice if a child takes the tiniest step forward. They can reassure everyone onthings are going in the right direction."
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
- Salary: Pay varies according to qualifications, experience and the kind of work you're doing. Most SLTs who work in schools earn between Pounds 25,000 and Pounds 40,000. Consultants or people running private clinics may earn more. SLT assistants usually earn between Pounds 15,000 and Pounds 22,000.
- Qualification: A three or four-year degree course, mixing academic study with placements. If you already have a degree in a related subject, such as linguistics or psychology, then some universities offer a two-year postgraduate option. Most courses welcome older applicants.
- Key qualities: Good communication and problem-solving skills. Patience is also important. With some children it may take several years before you see real progress.
- Next step: The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists is the professional body for SLTs. The website has plenty of career advice, including relevant training courses and job vacancies. Visit www.rcslt.org and www.nhscareers.nhs.uk.