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Speech and Language: UK report

1.7 million children behind in talking and understanding

Speech and Language UK now estimates that 1.7 million children in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are behind in their talking and understanding. Without the right support, these children can’t understand what teachers are saying, and have difficulty making friends, staying well and later on getting and keeping jobs and staying out of trouble. Supporting children with speech and language issues should be as much of a priority as literacy and numeracy, where government money has mostly gone. This has not worked. Literacy and numeracy are at an all time low. The way to address this is to recognise the priority of speech and language, identifying and supporting any child who is struggling. Clear guidance is needed. Government actions have been piecemeal. Opportunities have been wasted. Early language development and speech and language support are only mentioned in passing in the guidance on what the hubs should be doing to support families with babies. Covid recovery programmes have done little for children who are behind in talking and understanding. Most of the investment has gone into tutoring on academic subjects, not helping with speech and language. There is a gaping hole. In recent decades education has focused on phonics and reading recovery. There are long waits for speech and language therapy. So far Government has proposed nothing to improve the knowledge and expertise of teachers to support the estimated 1.7 million children with issues in talking and understanding.

As well as spotting children who are struggling and putting in place the right support to help them, action should also be taken to prevent children from needing help in the first place. Exposure at an early age to everyday conversation, make believe play, reading books, outings and visits, all help language development.

We are calling for local authorities to work with local health services to ensure a joined-up pathway of advice and support right from the start of new parents’ journey, just as it is for diet or vaccinations. Families need to know the simple steps that they can take to promote their child’s development. 

Children with issues need to be spotted earlier. Early years and school staff need the skills to support them. The Department for Education must recognise that its previous work on speech and language has been insufficient, that it must re-align existing programmes and initiatives, amend the Family Hubs guidance to support children under 3, require family hubs to bring together local partners, set out an overall strategy, commission the development of a freely available tool to inform planning and commissioning of services and be made freely available, develop ongoing training programmes, ensure content on talking and understanding is deepened and broadened, produce guidance for schools and teachers on what works, recognise that Covid recovery initiatives to date have not worked. Nursery staff, childminders and school staff need training. Teachers need help, especially newer teachers, and especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with special educational needs and disabilities. Teaching is the single most important factor. Speech and language needs should be a priority for family hubs and schools. More Speech and Language Therapists need to be trained. Schools and local authorities should learn from existing good practice. Getting children ‘to draw’ is not a substitute for teaching and learning. Mental health issues and self harm are on the rise. The effects are long-lasting.

More widely, those responsible for shaping the system in which schools operate – from national and local education policymakers to decision makers in the NHS, as well as other Government departments and arm’s length bodies, should act so that supporting children with speech and language challenges is incentivised in the system. Only then will every child be able to face the future with confidence.

See Yew et al (2013), Save the Children (2015) Law et al (2009)

Speech and Language UK (2022) 1.7 million young futures