Friday, 29 July 2011

The debate is being had – are you in or out? Laura Smith, Media and Campaign Manager

As a media professional, I know the importance of the phrase ‘if a debate is being had it's better to be in it than out and watching from the sidelines’. Media work is tough - you cannot ‘manage’ or ‘control’ the message but it is our job to frame the debate in the best way possible.

Yesterday, a piece on the BBC Today Programme (which has over 1 million listeners a day) set the pace for the news agenda. This has continued today with stories in the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph.

Journalists have been drawn to Frank Fields MP, the Government’s poverty czar, anecdotal comments that some children start school unable to say their name or even unaware that they have a name. We are talking about a small minority of children but experts like Jean Gross, Communication Champion, and other head teachers have said ‘sadly it does happen’.

Neil Wilson, a Head teacher of a federation of schools in Manchester, was brave enough to put his voice out there and say “This is the Holy Grail of breaking barriers of underachievement and disaffection”. And by ‘this’ he means improving children’s communication skills.

It's our job (and I mean the collective we) to broaden the debate out. To ensure that messages come through that communication underpins everything else, that we are not talking about one ‘homogenous’ group of children and importantly that the solutions are out there and great work is being done on the ground. Jean did this very well in yesterday Today’s Programme – you can listen again here.

The Communication Trust represents 40 voluntary and community organisations with expertise in speech, language and communication. Many of the children and young people we represent have a long term communication need that has absolutely nothing to do with social and environmental factors. They need specialist help at the right time and deserve greater understanding from society.

However, we also advocate for those children with delayed language and this is a large group - 50% in some areas of social deprivation. They are important because this is about children’s life chances and with the right help they can catch up with their peers. Our consortium understands more than most how challenging life is if you struggle to communicate and no child should do so needlessly.

This is why the Hello campaign (national year of communication) is working to help both groups of children and to make communication a priority for all. We have developed posters, top tips leaflets, ‘ages and stages’ booklets for parents and professionals that are all available free at

Within our consortium help lines are available (such as Afasic’s and I CAN’s enquiry service) and the British Stammering Association’s facebook page is an excellent example of support and advice that can be provided to others. If you haven’t – take a moment to find out more about our consortium here.

So I ask you to add your voice to the mix. Comment on newspaper articles, write your own blog, post up your thoughts on Facebook or Twitter and talk to others because that what’s the media does – it starts a conversation and then we need to fill it.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Raising expectations but not meeting needs?

I have been asked several times over the last year if now is really the right time to be running a major awareness raising campaign. With cuts to services rife and ongoing confusion on health and education structures some have asked if it is fair to raise awareness of speech, langauge and communication needs (SLCN) when there may be a dearth of local services to refer families to.

The current risk to service provision concerns the Trust and our members greatly. Not only do we back RCSLT’s Giving Voice Campaign, the private and public lobbying from the voluntary sector locally and nationally is one of the best defences against cuts.

But the idea of not running Hello just because there are cuts to provision is not something we could entertain. Part of the reason that it is so easy to cut SEN services is because, unless you are a parent of a child with a specific language impairment, the general public just don’t get it. I know I am such a parent.

More importantly though to suggest that we should not try everything we can to identify a child’s SLCN because we would be raising expectations of services that might not be there is, to my mind, not fulfilling our obligation to children. Firstly families should rightly expect a service and should be supported to agitate for same. Secondly there are many things that parents and the universal workforce can do to support both typical communication development and to help a child with SLCN that can be put into place immediately. This does not negate the need for specialist help for those that need it but rather recognises that provision is the sum of input from many professionals.

Most importantly the early identification of needs is one of the single most important aspects in mitigating the impact of SLCN and regardless of service provision the ‘naming’ of a problem that many parents know is there but can’t quite put their finger on is liberating – even if it is the start of a long and sometimes difficult journey.

So yes – now is the right time to raise awareness, to make sure families are not alone and to ensure the public know why communication matters. And this year with Hello, and next year and the year after, and until the job is done, the Trust will be making sure that no child with SLCN feels alone.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Speech and language everywhere - Anita Kerwin-Nye, Director

What a great first day back from maternity leave. A meeting with the Minister to discuss the SEN Green Paper and the brilliant new research piece from Rousltone et al on unequivocal link between speech and language and achievement.

The Roulstone article opens with a summary of speech, language and communication / needs (SLC/N) in the policy world and as I read it I realised how very far we have come in the last five years. When starting as Director of Communications at I CAN I was struck by how little speech and language featured in policy. At best it was in an SEN ghetto and even there a poor relation. There were some wonderful advocates of speaking and listening within curriculum and early years but they were lone voices in an agenda dominated by reading and writing.

The work I started then built on efforts of many before and pushed forward an agenda of collaboration that has led the success we see now.

I wouldn’t quite say speech and language is the ubiquitous issue de jour but I’d argue that we have hit the target I set to place speaking and listening in the same ball park as childhood obesity. And, with much respect to my very dear colleagues in autism and dyslexia, we are closer to having specific language impairment and other SLC/N as recognised in policy and trade press terms as those equally important conditions – a challenge I took on at the launch of The Communication Trust at the Cinnamon Club.

Policy shift is one thing – and the increase in both quality and number of media mentions is another win – but key is what happens on the ground. Our work on raising awareness has undoubtedly contributed to investment in the frontline from Every Child a Talker (ECAT), the Bercow Review and the resulting Action Plan and our efforts mean that many new central initiatives support speech and language locally. I hear much from parents and professionals how the work of the Trust and our partners, the Communication Champion and Hello has helped them save and shape frontline services by providing a spotlight on SLC/N and supporting their local advocacy efforts.

But we are entering difficult times. We have won much ground but the task now is to keep moving forward when the easiest thing to do would be to fall back. So there are new challenges to set, old partners to pull closer and new ones to seek out. So here is to the first day back and to the first day of the next five years.

Please click here to view information about the Roulestone Research, this links to the Latest News section on the Hello website and is the article titled: Reading and talking to children at home makes starting school easier