Page last updated at 10:30 GMT, Tuesday, 8 July 2008 11:30 UK

School pupil speech testing urged

By Hannah Richardson
Education reporter, BBC News

Classroom
Children's speech should be assessed when they begin school, says review

All children should be assessed for speech problems at the start of primary and secondary school, a report says.

The government-commissioned Bercow review of speech and language services says improving communication skills is key to raising educational standards.

Up to half the children in some areas of England have significant problems, but many have to fight for support.

Ministers accepted the points raised by the review and announced a 40m package for the training of early years staff.

A further 12m will be spent on implementation and a plan would be published in the autumn, says the government's response.

Conservative MP John Bercow's review of services for children and young people with speech, language and communication needs suggests about 40,000 children, or 7%, are starting primary school in England each year with significant difficulties with speech and or language.

But the rates are much higher in areas of social deprivation, with up to 50% having speech and language skills lower than expected for their age, the report says.

John Bercow
John Bercow was asked by ministers to carry out his review

Without the help they need these children will do worse at school, could develop emotional and behavioural problems and may descend into criminality, it argues.

But Mr Bercow said families faced a "postcode lottery" of provision and shortages of speech experts in most areas of the country.

He said communication skills that were essential to life were not being prioritised in schools, especially in the early years.

"This is severely hampering children's ability to develop the necessary life skills to participate in and contribute to society when they get older," he added.

'Light touch'

Experts argue, however, that with early intervention and the right support most communication problems can be overcome.

Some areas already carry out comprehensive assessments of children at key points in their educational career, but many do not. This leaves an incomplete picture of what is needed.

Mr Bercow wants to see a "light touch method" of early assessment to ensure that no child with problems slips through the net.

Ministers accepted that more surveillance and monitoring of children's language skills were needed, but suggested extra training of early years staff would enable them to better pick up language problems.

Health visitors might also be involved in more language development checks.

Mr Bercow also said Sir Jim Rose should be asked to see how a speech and language focus could be put into primary schools as part of his review of the primary curriculum.

Children's secretary Ed Balls said it was clear that local services needed to improve and that he was convinced improvements could now be made.

"I want to ensure that all children are supported to communicate whether they are severely impaired or because they simply need help to expand their vocabulary," he added.

The report also makes recommendations on how services best be provided.

It finds that there is a lack of strategic planning and oversight of what is needed in many local areas.

This issue has been ignored for too long and it needs to be given proper priority
John Bercow

This should be better organised, so it suggests a named person should have the responsibility for commissioning communication provision in each local area.

It also calls for a communication champion or tsar, charged with driving things forward, to be appointed and a communication council be established to develop over-arching policy and ensure the implementation of the review.

And there should be a significant national campaign on the issue building up to a national year of speech, language and communication.

"It is part of saying this issue has been ignored for too long and it needs to be given proper priority," Mr Bercow said.

He also says a series of government-backed pathfinders should be set up to assess local need and decide how best it can be provided.

Virginia Beardshaw, chief executive of communication charity ICAN, said implementing the review's recommendations would bring about a step change in speech, language and communication, of immense benefit to children and families.

Kamini Gadhok, chief executive of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, said communication needs were not well understood and parents should not have to fight the same battles every year to get support their children need.

NUT general secretary Christine Blower said: "Teachers have consistently argued that speaking and listening as well as phonics should be part of a range of strategies to tackle children's early learning needs."

Clare Tickell, chief executive of children's charity NCH, said: "There is a real need to increase the support these children receive, as soon as possible after their difficulties have been identified."


SEE ALSO
Speech problems 'need attention'
21 Mar 08 |  Education
Toddlers to get help with talking
10 May 07 |  Education
Winning the battle of words
16 May 08 |  Education

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