A study published this year found that approximately two children in every Year 1 class experience a clinically significant language disorder that impacts learning, that's 7.58% of children. Yet when we analysed Department of Education (DfE) data we found that only 3.04% of children in Year 1 of the same year were identified by schools as having a language difficulties. Put in a different way, that's more than half of children with language difficulties that are not being identified by schools, meaning they miss out on the crucial support they need.
Of course the story isn't quite as simple as that. Our data sources don't match up exactly. The Surrey Communication and Language in Education (SCALES) study, led by Professor Courtenay Norbury assessed children in primary schools across Surrey, whereas the DfE data is looking at all children, nationally. As well as this, the DfE data reports on children with speech, language and communication needs - and so is a wider group, including for example those with speech difficulties. It also includes children with English as an Additional Language, and those attending special schools - which the study in Surrey excludes. But even given this, the calculation of those children whose language difficulties are not identified is probably pretty conservative.
The story gets even more complicated when we start exploring possible reasons for the identification gap. A few years back, the Communication Trust used the phrase 'mistaken, misunderstood, missed' to describe children with language difficulties. Yes, there are definitely some children whose needs are missed, or not identified - especially at the beginning of primary school when the curriculum is relatively straightforward. It may be only later on when learning becomes more complicated and dependent on technical, complex language when children have problems. However, in many more pupils language needs may be mistaken for and recorded as something else. In the SCALES study, for example, a sizeable proportion of the children identified as having a language disorder were reported by schools as having Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Finally, there are those pupils whose needs are misunderstood as something completely different. Schools generally notice when there is a problem, especially a behaviour problem, but do not always understand that this may be because of an underlying language difficulty.
So there's a strong likelihood that these unidentified children may be 'hidden' elsewhere in the DfE statistics. Children's needs are identified, but the language component is not. But are there other reasons for children with language difficulties not being spotted?
What is interesting is that our analysis ties in with Professor Norbury's findings; only half of the children identified as having language disorder in the Surrey study had been referred for speech and language therapy. Why is this?
An international group of academics and practitioners recently got together to look at the terminology we use to describe children with language difficulties. One of the main drivers for this was that other special educational need (SENs) such as ASD or dyslexia are often better known, attract more research funding and have more services. Indeed, in 2012 the Better Communication Research Programme found that pupils with ASD received approximately three times as much support time than pupils with language disorder - even when they had the same type and severity of difficulty. Therefore, might one of the reasons for children seeming to be 'missed' be the fact that identification may not result in action? Even after being identified, a child may not have severe enough difficulties to 'qualify' for therapy, a long waiting list may discourage school staff from raising concern with families when no help is immediately available, there may not be sufficient support available locally. So, there is a risk that although a need is identified, practitioners 'manage' within their setting rather than seek specialist support, perceiving there to be little point.
Whatever the reason, the fact remains that there is a significant group of children with language difficulties not getting the support they need to do well academically and socially.
In 2008 a Government commissioned review, led by John Bercow, reported huge variability in the services available for children with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). It was followed by a National Year of Communication, which raised the profile of children's speech and language and led to changes in the way support was commissioned. Since then, there has been wholesale reorganisation of both the health and education systems in which these children grow, communicate and learn. These have happened in the context of national austerity when many specialist services have been subject to cuts, and the positive impacts from the review have therefore not being maintained.
Without the support they need, children with SLCN run the risk of school failure, relationships that don't work and ultimately limited life chances. But with the right support at the right time, children with language difficulties can achieve their potential. For some schools, settings, services in some parts of the country this 'right support' is the norm. Wouldn't it be great if we could bottle this, work out just what is needed to replicate it and ensure that when a need is identified it results in positive action taking place?
The time is right to revisit many of the issues raised by the 2008 review, and put the spotlight on children's speech, language and communication. I CAN and RCSLT have joined together to run Bercow: Ten Years On, a project designed to examine support for children and young people with SLCN in England. This week, as part of this we have launched an inquiry. We want as many people as possible to share their experiences of the reality of support and information for children, young people with SLCN and their families. By doing this, through highlighting positive practice and by making strong recommendations for change, we hope to address many of the reasons for the apparent under-identification our analysis found.
To find out more and how you can take part visit the Bercow: Ten Years On website.