As the Chair of the APPG for Assistive Technology I welcome today’s report, from the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists and the ‘I CAN’ charity, which sends a clear message that change is needed to improve provision for children and young people with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). It is vital in the areas of integration and education and for the workplace to enhance social mobility in the every sector and society.
The report rightly praises the impact of the 2008 Bercow Review which led to major reforms across SLCN provision, including the creation of a network of NHS specialist hubs which provide assessments, training and communication aid equipment for children and young people with complex communication needs. These Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) technologies can be life-changing for children and young people with little or no speech, enabling them to communicate. I have seen this first hand in my work as Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology where those in the SLCN community have spoken passionately about the ways in which (AAC) technologies unlock opportunities for education and social interaction.
But there are also clear warnings that gaps in provision are impacting the education and wellbeing of young people.
· The needs of children are falling through the gaps in provision as education and health and care services are not sufficiently joined-up.
· Getting access to services is a postcode lottery. Children who do not yet meet eligibility criteria to be supported by a specialised AAC service need access to local AAC provision, which is currently available in only a very few places across the country.
The lack of access to support leaving children and young people without a means to effectively communicate impacts significantly on their mental health, educational attainment and employment opportunities. The report notes that as many as half of all children and young people living in deprived areas may have SLCN, and a young person referred to mental health service is three times as likely than their peers to have SLCN.
There are some clear examples of good practice in service delivery, where strong local leadership has established joint working between services. The report highlights the example of Liverpool City Council and the NHS Liverpool Clinical Commissioning Group who have jointly commissioned a local AAC service and funding for communication aid equipment. This initiative exemplifies the model of provision set out in the SEND code of practice, and it gives families clarity about where they can turn for support. However it is clear that the ‘postcode lottery’ referred to in the original Bercow Review is still very much in effect.
The report’s call for the Department for Education and Department of Health to develop a cross-governmental strategy for speech, language and communication needs is urgently needed. This is further emphasised by the report’s recommendation that NHS England and the Department for Education set out a clear definition of joint commissioning for SLCN as a guide for local services, including commissioning of local AAC services and equipment to complement the network of NHS specialist hubs. The nature of SLCN makes both education and health services equally relevant for meeting children’s needs, and should be reflected in the approach taken by Government.
In addition, the report points to the vital work of the Communication Trust. The Communication Trust represents a consortium of more than fifty voluntary sector SLCN organisations and provides resources and training to develop the SCLN workforce within health and education services. The Trust also acts as the secretariat for the Communication Council, a strategic group which is chaired by Directors from The Department for Education and The Department of Health. The Department for Education has declared its intention not to renew its contract with the Communication Trust. There is a growing campaign to save the Communication Trust’s core services. The Government must consider the longer-term savings that are made when children and young people with SLCN go on to succeed in education and employment. There is also a well established connection between SLCN that are not addressed and youth crime.
The report also points to the need to develop the evidence base for effective practice in SLCN and I am pleased to announce that the largest ever UK research project into AAC, I-ASC, will disseminate its findings this year at a seminar of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology. The project investigates the role of joint working between services and the crucial involvement of families and young people themselves.
Through the work of the APPG for Assistive Technology, I have had the opportunity to meet with a wide range of people of all ages who use AAC technology to communicate, family members, technology developers and people in the AAC workforce. People with complex SLCN need a genuine voice in our society. Today’s report, like the Bercow Review 10 years ago, is a milestone in that endeavour. We should celebrate it as such but, more than that, we should use it – to help give this generation of children and young people with SCLN the opportunity to realise their true potential.
Seema Malhotra is the Labour MP for Feltham and Heston