The failure of schools to tackle speech and language difficulties is leaving some of the most vulnerable pupils from the poorest backgrounds facing a future of alienation and underachievement, experts have said.
Difficulties in communication were a key barrier to learning, they argued, and when not tackled, they also left children feeling unhappy and angry.
But cuts to speech and language specialist provision, and a lack of training for class teachers, meant that Scotland was increasingly ill-equipped to deal with the problem, the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists Scotland (RCSLTS), said.
More than half of children from the poorest homes in Scotland start school with some sort of communication difficulty, a major Scottish study recently revealed.
And most concerns about children’s early development are related to speech, language and communication, with 11 per cent identified as having difficulties.
However, at least three councils have stopped funding speech and language therapists, and provision in the rest of the country is “patchy” and “inconsistent”, said Kim Hartley Kean, head of RCSLTS.
The consequences could be dire for children, she said, with 60 per cent of young offenders, and 88 per cent of young people out of work and education having speech, language and communication needs.
Children with communication problems also suffer while in school, according to Sue Ellis, professor of education at the University of Strathclyde. They underachieve and are often isolated, unhappy, disconnected, frustrated or angry (see box, left).
Ms Hartley Kean said: “Clearly we are missing something because we are seeing [more than] 50 per cent of children from disadvantaged homes turning up at primary with underdeveloped skills. And these are the same skills that underpin literacy.”
According to the study, Growing up in Scotland, which is tracking the lives of thousands of young people, 54 per cent of children from the lowest-income homes have below-average vocabulary ability at the age of 5. This compares with 20 per cent from the most affluent homes.
Ms Hartley Kean pointed out that the only inequality more prevalent was breastfeeding, with 55 per cent of children from the least affluent homes not being breastfed. But there had been huge investment to drive up breastfeeding rates, she added.
Ability and behaviour
Speech and language therapy was “incredibly valuable” but the service was being eroded, said Ann McIntosh, past president of the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland, who has also been a primary headteacher for 12 years.
Communication difficulties impacted hugely on ability and behaviour, Ms McIntosh added. And even a child’s ability to learn through play was compromised if they could not communicate effectively with their peers.
Speech and language therapists used to be in schools regularly, and a conversation about one child would lead to discussions about half a dozen more with similar problems.
But Ms McIntosh added that therapists were now in school “irregularly” and professional dialogues were not taking place.
“We can pick up on things in school and teachers are willing to work very hard with speech and language therapists, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for us to get through to our partners,” she added.
Therapy as a last resort
Ms Hartley Kean called for the skills of all people working with children and young people to be developed so that they knew what normal speech and language development looked like and could identify when things were going wrong.
“This is not about everyone seeing a speech and language therapist, it’s about making sure everybody knows how to create an environment in which communication development is optimised,” she said. “Speech and language therapists would be central to developing that capacity and, when that doesn’t work, that’s where the therapist would come in.”
The Scottish government is currently carrying out an exercise to evaluate how much councils are investing in speech and language therapy. Education Secretary Angela Constance has also recently committed to convening a summit “to explore how we might build on the good work that is already being done”.
The academic’s view: ‘We need new solutions’
A few years ago, I conducted a training course to help P3-4 teachers address the literacy skills of a real child in their class who was struggling to learn to read and write.
I was struck by how many of the children had been identified in P1 as having delayed speech and language but were not affected badly enough to qualify for regular speech and language therapy (SLT) intervention.
We all wondered: the children could “get by” in class, but was that good enough? Did their language problems resurface as literacy problems? Would more SLTs improve literacy levels? Should teachers become more vocal advocates for such children?
Children who cannot understand or communicate well need help. In class they underachieve and can appear isolated, unhappy, disconnected, frustrated or angry. Language affects emotional, social and educational development and is an issue for every teacher.
When money is tight, SLT is the sort of service that gets “trimmed”. Already health boards vary in terms of how many SLTs work in schools and nurseries, and in their models of professional collaboration. Across Scotland we need more SLTs, more SLT assistants, and better CPD for early years professionals.
We need new solutions: there is now an inter-professional master’s module at my university where SLTs and teachers collaborate to address the needs of vulnerable children. It is one small step, but we need more.
Sue Ellis is a professor of education at the University of Strathclyde
How to help your students
Children from less advantaged socio-economic backgrounds go to school having heard 32 million fewer words on average than their middle-class peers, according to Save the Children. Through its Read On, Get On campaign, the charity wants to get all children in Scotland reading well by the age of 11.
The link between communication skills and literacy is also recognised by children’s communication charity I Can. It says that children’s levels of oral language competence are declining but “successful development of literacy depends upon competent language skills”. However, small changes in the school environment can help. These include:
Visual support systems, such as timetables.
An uncluttered classroom environment where equipment is clearly marked.
Teaching that incorporates visual and tactile approaches, including the use of real objects, practical activities, pictures and video.
Staff using non-verbal communication to support what they are saying, for example gesturing, pointing – and maybe even signing.
Careful seating arrangements that allow the child to be near the front, facing the teacher.
Simple language, and short instructions that are repeated for those who need it.
Find out more at bit.ly/ICanTips