Half of all pupils start school with poor communication skills; 6 in 100 have a diagnosable difficulty; Immigrant children's problems can be missed; TES-Nasen exhibition next week will offer help
Half of children start school without sufficient communication skills to learn, achieve and make friends, it is estimated. Their problem could be little more than a slight stammer, a delay in speaking or, in some of the worst case scenarios, a condition linked with autism or cerebral palsy.
Six in every 100 will have some form of diagnosable speech or language difficulty, and more than one in every 500 will experience severe, long- term problems.
The extent of the challenges faced by children, families, teachers and other education and health professionals was revealed last month when John Bercow, a Conservative MP, published his interim report into services for under-19s with communication difficulties.
His findings did not make happy reading. Families were struggling to find appropriate help and believed their children were not a local authority priority, the report said.
Specialist help was patchy, and too many youngsters were not identified early enough as needing support. In addition, the report found that agencies did not work together effectively or share a common language when it came to supporting families.
Those who had received support often found professionals were stretched for time and did not have sufficient resources to cope with the workload.
In summary, the Bercow review - which was commissioned by Ed Balls, the Children, Schools and Families Secretary, and Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary, and launched in September - found that although there were many skilled professionals and some good facilities, the overall position was "highly unsatisfactory".
"Access to information and services is often poor, services themselves are very mixed, continuity across the age range is lacking, effective joint working between the health and education services is rare, and there is something of a postcode lottery across the country," the review found.
"Above all, local commissioners attach a low priority to the subject, and this must change."
The final report, expected in July, will recommend next steps for the Government. Meanwhile, plans are already afoot to improve teacher training and offer better continuing professional development to those working with special needs children.
The inclusions development programme (IDP), launched by Mr Balls in October last year, is due to start implementation this month. The pound;2 million project, developed by National Strategies, the organisation contracted by the Government to manage its educational strategies in primary and secondary schools, is aimed at boosting teacher confidence when dealing with special needs children.
The first phase of the four-year implementation focuses on staff working with pupils with language and communication problems, and dyslexia. The package includes a DVD and web-based resources, which teachers can use individually or as part of a whole-school approach, to look at what changes they can make in the classroom.
Ann Henderson, senior special educational needs adviser for National Strategies, said the packs were developed as a result of Government inclusion strategies.
"Teachers feel ill-equipped and unable to meet all the needs of children with speech and language problems, and student teachers only get half a day's training in special needs, which isn't enough," she said. "The inclusions development programme will give teachers the practical support to meet those pupils' needs, and it is a very user-friendly way of getting on-the-job continuing professional development."
Meanwhile, the speech, language and communication framework was launched last month by the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Communication Trust to help integrate children with language problems. As with the inclusions development programme, its standards are set by the National Strategies. It is aimed at teachers and others who work with children to ensure they have the appropriate skills and knowledge to be able to promote speech, language and communication development, and to identify those experiencing problems.
Practitioners and managers will be able to carry out an online evaluation of their current skills and find ways to enhance those areas where they lack confidence or knowledge.
Anita Kerwin-Nye, director of the Communication Trust, said: "The evidence from the Bercow review clearly states that the wider children's workforce needs further training when it comes to addressing speech and communication needs. The speech, language and communication framework will support those who are already skilled and wish to build on their experience, and provides an easy introduction to those whose knowledge is limited."
www.dfes.gov.ukbercowreview; www.standards.dcsf.gov.ukprimaryfeaturesinclusionsenidp; www.communicationhelppoint.org.uk
AT LAST, LILY IS A CHATTERBOX
Lily Thomas was 15 months old when her mother realised that she was not making the progress with speech and communication that she should be.
"I had a comparison because Maia, my elder daughter, was a chatterbox at that age, so I knew it wasn't right," Sally Thomas said.
"Lily wasn't babbling the way toddlers do or trying to speak in any way. But health visitors sent us away four times saying she was just a late developer and it would come."
After seven months, Lily was finally diagnosed with a communication difficulty, but it took another six to identify that she had glue ear, which may have affected her progress.
Finally, Lily was offered a place at an early years centre run by the children's communication charity I Can, where children are helped though a range of strategies, including clapping out syllables.
She began to sing and speak more, and her confidence grew. "During a visit to McDonald's, she asked for a banana milk shake by clapping out each letter," Ms Thomas said. "I will never forget that day."
Lily now attends a local primary in Sheffield, but has had no speech therapy for nearly six months due to a lack of resources. A teaching assistant gives some one-to-one tuition, but the centre's work may be undone unless she receives more consistent support.
Ms Thomas, a secondary school administration officer, said: "I see young people with communication problems every day, and some are disruptive and act up. I'm relieved Lily received the help she needed early."