How has coronavirus affected your child’s access to speech and language therapy?

with Caroline Wright, Policy Adviser at the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists

In the first lockdown, thousands of children overnight lost the external therapy input such as speech and language support that they relied on, We know that a large percentage of them still haven't got it back.

The result is that the pandemic has had a severe impact on the progress and potentially, the outcomes of these children. Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT), wants to find out for themselves more about this.

Caroline Wright is Policy Adviser at the RCSLT, leading on children and young people’s policy in England. She's here on SNJ to tell us more about it....

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Help us find out the impact of loss of speech and language therapy on children with SEND during the Pandemic: RCSLT

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists has been concerned about the impact of the pandemic on children and young people who are supported by speech and language therapists.

We know that many of you will have felt this impact and we’d really like to hear from you about it. We’ve designed a survey to find out how the pandemic and the lockdown has affected access to speech and language therapy and we plan to use the results to make the case for more speech and language therapy support. 

What happened to speech and language therapy?

What’s the background to this? You will remember that as pressure increased on the NHS in March, many health services were told to stop their routine work with only urgent care needs allowed to continue – in a lot of areas this meant all support for speech, language and communication was halted. A survey of our members in April found that around one in five speech and language therapists had been redeployed to work in other parts of the NHS, with the proportion redeployed from children’s services likely to be higher.

With schools closed to the majority of pupils, and the instruction from the government to stay at home, the therapists that remained at work found new ways to deliver services, with more support being offered remotely. But we know the digital offer varied hugely between areas, and even the services that excelled were unable to reach many of the children and families who needed support.

Pent up demand for SLT

In May, we submitted evidence to the Education Select Committee which set out our concerns about the impact of COVID-19 on children and young people, including:

  • The closure of settings and services meant that opportunities for children’s speech, language and communication needs to be identified early would be missed.
  • Speech and language therapy services were reporting a significant reduction in referrals during the lockdown period. We worried that this would result in pent-up demand for speech and language therapy assessments and intervention post-lockdown.
  • The potential for the move to digital services to widen the postcode lottery in support which existed prior to the pandemic, with the greatest negative impact on those from already disadvantaged groups who, for a variety of reasons, would not be well served by remote consultations.
Caroline Wright, Policy Advisor, RCSLT
Caroline Wright, Policy Advisor, RCSLT

Recovery Plans

We called for support for speech, language and communication needs to be included in local and national recovery plans, for clear guidance to be given to healthcare professionals on how to work safely in education settings, and for services to be adequately resourced to enable them to support the children and families who had missed out on services during the lockdown. 

By the summer, the restrictions had been relaxed and managers of services were planning how they would deliver services again once schools reopened. Unfortunately, this was made more difficult by the absence of clear guidance from government for health professionals who work in education settings. Since schools have re-opened we are again hearing about variation in the extent to which services have been able to restart. Each school has developed its own policies for managing COVID, which poses a logistical challenge for services like speech and language therapy that work across many schools. And, of course, many schools have had to shut down bubbles, or in some cases close entirely for periods of time.

These challenges, coming on top of the huge gaps in provision for many children and young people over the preceding months, meant that we were extremely concerned about the prospect of children’s therapists being redeployed again as pressures in the NHS have increased over the autumn. So we joined with the Royal College of Occupational Therapists, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, the Disabled Children’s Partnership and the British Academy of Childhood Disability to write a letter to the Children’s Minister Vicky Ford about our concerns.

Mixed messages on the ground

We were grateful for the Minister’s unambiguous response: “The department [for education]’s clear expectation is that therapists should not be redeployed.” Worryingly, despite this clear message from government, we have continued to hear from services that are under pressure to release children’s therapists to be redeployed. Like Vicky Ford, we hope that NHS England will send health leaders a clear message on the redeployment and prioritisation of therapists for children and young people with SEND.

We are not naïve about the fact that way before the pandemic, many children and families were unable to get the speech and language therapy they needed – this was highlighted by our own report with I CAN Bercow: Ten Years On in 2018 and again by the Children’s Commissioner in 2019. But the COVID-19 pandemic means that services which were already struggling with waiting lists now have an even bigger mountain to climb – which could mean an even longer wait, and less support, for children and families.

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Take our survey to help find out the impact

This is where you come in. If your child has had speech and language therapy then we’d be so grateful if you could complete our survey - your answers will help us to fight for better access to speech and language therapy services for all.

The survey is available in a range of accessible formats and closes at 5pm on Friday, 5 February 2021. We look forward to reading your responses. Click the button to access the survey:


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