Leadership programme

Speech, language and deceptively simple solutions

Jane Harris


Speech & Language UK

It is said that when we established a national education system, there was a brief debate as to whether schools should teach children about spoken language. This was quickly concluded with the decision that in fact that was their parents’ job. Who knows whether that was the right decision then, but it is absolutely the wrong policy right now.

I want an education policy that recognises we need to correct this error.

Whatever children’s communication skills were before the start of this parliamentary term, they are now wrecked by both the COVID pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis. Disadvantage and speech and language challenges go hand-in-hand and it is well documented by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) as well as others that the pandemic reduced children’s communication skills.

In the latest EYFS results, 1 in 5 children are behind in communication and language. Our data at Speech and Language UK suggests that this number continues throughout the school system.

I want an education policy that recognises the severity of the situation and the plethora of evidence and tools we have at our fingertips to solve it. There really aren’t that many policy problems facing government where there are so many cost-effective and simple solutions available.

The recent focus on oracy is part of the picture – especially if that means more schools recognise that communication skills underpins literacy and numeracy, rather than being secondary to it. A Head of English told me recently that they would love to do more on oracy but they ‘had to get their reading sorted out first’. This is the wrong way round! It really is hard to decode and comprehend words if you have never heard and understood them before.

But oracy alone is not the answer, partly because the deficits in children’s skills are so acute at the end of this parliamentary term. They need targeted programmes, which EEF has repeatedly said are the third most effective programmes we can make in children’s education. Nuffield Early Language Intervention will be the right choice for some, but many will find their children can thrive on a less resource intensive programme like our Talk Boost series, which helps 50% of children catch up with their peers after nine weeks of an hour’s group work led by a teaching assistant.

Underpinning all this is investing more in teacher training. Over half of teachers currently say that they get inadequate training in speech and language development. Any government that is ambitious for our children should be passionate about changing this.

Ongoing classroom practice is important to every child’s development but particularly those children who have lifelong speech and language challenges. Too many talk of being labelled naughty when they actually just haven’t understood instructions. Many more have been assumed to have mental health or behavioural problems, leading to many wasted hours of treatments and interventions that were never designed to help them.

Almost a million children have (likely undiagnosed) Developmental Language Disorder. Almost all can thrive in a mainstream setting if (and it’s a big if) staff know how to adapt their practices to help them participate in learning.

  • This could mean using less complex grammatical structures when explaining instructions – so not saying ‘before you start the exercise, read the text’ but ‘read the text, then start the exercise’.
  • It could mean pre-teaching those students new vocabulary before using it in whole class settings.
  • It could mean asking lower order questions to children who need that so that they can still participate in class-wide discussions.
  • There is an enormous range of good strategies that teachers can use, from writing frames to visual supports and cutting-edge technologies. Teachers will have more job satisfaction if they have all these tricks up their sleeves and children’s futures will be transformed.

One critique of educational policy in the last decade or so is that too much responsibility has been put on schools, that they have had to run food banks and act as social services on top of the day job. The scale of this crisis is such that schools alone cannot be expected to fix it.

The NHS and local authorities must also recruit and retain enough Speech and Language Therapists to diagnose children with lifelong speech and language challenges and to give schools advice on specialist support available.

Further, there are huge opportunities in some emerging technologies that can help more children to communicate than ever before. One of the most eloquent children I have ever met never spoke a word but used an iPad to communicate her lyrically expressed thoughts. We are missing out as a society if we do not invest to hear their voices.

Local and national government must also resource special schools properly for children who need more specialist support and value their expertise. Non-maintained not-for-profit special schools, which educate thousands of vulnerable children every year, should not be talked about in the same breath as private sector independent schools.

That may sound like a huge outlay. But it will more than pay off. Various studies have found huge paybacks from investing in speech and language programmes and training, from the early years onwards. Any programme that improves education, mental health and reduces unemployment and young offending is bound to be good value.

We have a huge opportunity to shift the futures of 1.9 million children. We need a government that recognises the scale of the problem ahead – and the brilliant and often deceptively simple solutions that can fix it for a generation.

Jane Harris, CEO, Speech & Language UK

Big Education

Leadership Programme

Applications are now open for headteachers and senior leaders working across education. The programme gives you the opportunity to connect with your authentic self and equip you with powerful strategies to bring about the changes you believe in.

Related post

We need to rethink the purpose of education: it is students with the habits and dispositions of powerful learners who thrive in lockdown and in life

Rachel Macfarlane

Related programmes

applications are now open for headteachers and senior leaders working across education. The programme gives leaders the opportunity to connect with your authentic self and equip you with powerful strategies to bring about the changes you believe in.

Who Will Get Your Vote in Education?

In election year 2024, this is one of a series of fortnightly blogs – running through the year – in which we invite colleagues from across the country to answer the question: Who will get your vote on education?

Roy Blatchford is serving as convenor and editor of the series. If you are interested in writing, please contact [email protected]

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