Promises, promises: Bercow’s Speech and Language Report: 10 Years On

The children's communication charity, ICAN and the Royal College of Speech & Language Therapists have announced a review of John Bercow's Report on services for children and young people with speech, language and communication needs.

Another review of Speech & Language Therapy policy? Sure, whatever.

Seriously, who wouldn’t welcome discussion of SLT? It’s ten years since John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, chaired a review which found that nearly 40,000 children (one in 14) were starting school with serious speech, language and communication (SLC) needs, a ratio three times higher than dyslexia. The review concluded that treatment was inconsistently available across the country.

At the time, Clare Tickell, chief executive of NCH which is now Action for Children, said:

"This report highlights 40 recommendations for addressing the needs of children and young people with speech, language and communication difficulties. It is important that every single point is acted upon, rather than a select few being cherry-picked."

Promises, promises: Bercow's Speech & Language Review: 10 years on

What happened next?

The Bercow report was accompanied by a £12 million implementation fund and £40 million was earmarked for training staff. What happened?

Well, two years later the coalition government scrapped the entire system for training and developing support staff in schools overnight – professional standards, status, qualification pathway, website, development network, all gone. The current government recently refused point-blank to endorse a new set of standards for Teaching Assistants, so your child’s TA currently has no professional standards to aim at: how does that make you feel?

It was a master-stroke of opportunism, using and misinterpreting the messages of the Deployment and Impact of Support Staff research project (DISS, 2009), to make an ideological shift in education policy and, at the same time, cut back spending. It instantly betrayed the purpose of Bercow’s report.

Instead, the same government launched the reform of the SEND system, focused on the paperwork, which cost more than ten times the Bercow training plan. This included more than £2 million set aside in the “SEND Pathfinder” contract won by Mott MacDonald, a private engineering firm responsible for the London tube and the Channel Tunnel.

The Pathfinder project quietly went underground, along with your taxes, in August 2014 when Lord Nash steered the Children & Families Act through Parliament in a pre-election spree.

What did The Bercow Review recommend?

So, given that time and money are scarce, couldn’t they just reprint the report that was published in 2008? Change the date, that’s pretty much it… right? Let’s look at some of the recommendations it contained:

  • we recommend that speech, language and communication is prioritised by all Children’s Centres and that it is a primary focus for measuring every child’s progress.

Er- no... no, that isn’t working because Children’s Centres are closing (an explanation of government’s policy on this has been promised in the Autumn; we’ll look forward to that).

Bercow also recommended that government should,

  • take account of how the school funding system supports the delivery of universal, targeted and specialist services for children and young people with special educational needs.

Hmmm. Unless your child has an Education, Health and Care Plan, funding for your child’s special needs in school is not ring-fenced and, though I keep saying how much I like the High Needs Funding review published last year, government is sitting on it and May (excuse the pun) continue to do so for some time. As we are so fond of saying in SEND, ‘move along, nothing to see here’.

How about these?

  • We further recommend that the standards for Qualified Teacher Status ensure that students develop a better understanding of children and young people’s SLCN and of how to address those needs. [Recommendation 22]
  • We recommend that DCSF [Department for Children, Schools and Family, now the DfE] includes speech, language and communication, both as a core requirement and as an elective module, in the new Masters in Teaching and Learning. [Recommendation 23]

Oh, no, those didn’t happen either. If you want to know what the current professional teaching standards say about SEND, it’s this:

  • have a clear understanding of the needs of all pupils, including those with special educational needs; those of high ability; those with English as an additional language; those with disabilities; and be able to use and evaluate distinctive teaching approaches to engage and support them.

Knowledge of speech and language development, how to follow therapy advice, how to help a child achieve their SLT targets in the classroom… no, those things didn’t make the cut. Autism is going to be a focus in Initial Teacher Training, apparently. I look forward to that.

I know! Let’s close Bercow's report for now and hope for better luck when we open the research paper, written by Geoff Lindsay and others, that supported it. Here are the key findings in Lindsay’s research: how many of these have changed? I’ve got so many fingers crossed for this bit:

  • There is substantial variation in service provision and practice...
  • Terminology and categorisation of needs also vary, undermining consistency and rendering assessment of the efficiency and effectiveness of different arrangements problematic.
  • Although LAs are data rich and these data are also available in aggregated form to explore the national picture, this resource is under-exploited at present; Primary Care Trusts lack such an extensive resource.
  • There is a lack of integration of data from LAs and PCTs.
  • LAs and PCTs differ in terms of the coherence of the integration of education and health services: the development of integrated practice remains under developed; where there is such integration, the results appear positive.
  • The lack of agreement about terminology, the lack of effective data collection and analysis systems and the lack of targeted research and evaluation studies of interventions seriously restricts any individual LA/PCT pair in assessing effectiveness and efficiency.
  • It is not possible, at present, to assess the efficiency and effectiveness of different arrangements for organising and providing services for children and young people with SLCN.
  • At present there is a lack of evidence on cost effectiveness from studies; in addition, there is a lack of suitable data available, or at least used in practice, within LAs and PCTs.

A plea...

Nope. It’s like one of those ‘Before’ and ‘After’ pictures, but they’re both the same: if they do the research just as carefully this time (and they could do, because Geoff Lindsay is on the new review panel), they’ll find that nothing much has really changed in this landscape.

Please, ICAN, don’t put your good name to this review unless you really believe it’s going to work.

We’ll post details of how to contribute to the review when we receive them.

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Barney Angliss, @AspieDeLaZouch
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  1. elsiep

    Thank you for explaining what happened behind the scenes. Now makes sense.

    Recently bumped into son’s infant school LSA – she’s still there 12 years on. She said the school got so fed up with problems accessing SLT support, they paid the SLT service to train all the school staff in basic SL skills. And all the staff can use Makaton.

    One way forward while the government does whatever it does.

  2. SALT has been the biggest disappointment to us since our girl was diagnosed 6 years ago. We have had no involvement for the past 2 years despite her speech being unclear and her communication unusual. Not sure there’s any point continuing to ask for it ?

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