This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in January 2019. You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.
You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here.
Before you picked up this article, did you know what SLCN stood for? Don’t worry if not. I polled several secondary teachers before I began writing and was surprised to find that a majority hadn’t heard of the acronym.
And yet SLCN is a major cause of SEN in secondary school pupils and prevents many pupils from accessing the curriculum and fulfilling their potential. So, before we go on, let’s define SLCN.
What is SLCN?
SLCN stands for speech, language and communication needs. All children and young people need good speech, language and communication skills in order to access the school curriculum, make good progress and achieve good outcomes from school and from life. After all, speech, language and communication underpin basic literacy.
But, as well as being integral to literacy and therefore academic success, speech, language and communication skills are also closely linked to pupil behaviour and to their social, emotional and mental health and wellbeing. After all, if pupils cannot communicate effectively, they cannot interact with their peers or express their feelings. Let’s call this emotional literacy.
There are important differences between the three elements of SLCN. Let’s deconstruct the acronym.
S stands for speech. Pupils need to be able to speak fluently – which is to say with a clear voice, using appropriate pitch, volume and intonation, and without too much hesitation – in order to express themselves and demonstrate their understanding in every school subject. Being able to speak enables pupils to clearly convey their learning.
L stands for language. Pupils need to command a range of appropriate vocabulary in order to facilitate and further their learning across the curriculum. For example, they need to understand instructions from teachers and others. Pupils also need to be able to use verbal reasoning in order to acquire, process, analyse and understand the new information they encounter every day at school.
C stands for communication. Pupils need to know how to adapt their communication style in order to suit the purpose and audience. They need to be able to use and follow the non-verbal rules of communication, such as active listening and taking conversational turns, and they need to be able to use language to explain, describe, persuade and so on.
Vital for secondary schools
Language development is something generally associated with early years education. However, language and communication skills continue to develop throughout pupils’ teenage years. Pupils continue learning new vocabulary and complex language structures.
It is therefore important for secondary teachers to be able to encourage and extend this development. Put simply, language and communication between teachers and pupils enables learning.
Furthermore, pupils need the ability to use language for negotiation, compromise, resolving conflict, developing relationships and for managing and regulating their emotions. And all pupils need the skills to be proficient communicators, for school, work and for life.
However, there are many pupils who struggle to develop these skills. For some pupils this may mean specialist support is needed and/or access to alternative and augmentative means of communication such as signs, symbols and communication aids.
For others, however, tailored support from within school can make a considerable difference. Without this support, pupils with SLCN will struggle to understand instructions, access the curriculum, manage their behaviour and reach targets that could otherwise be well within their grasp. It is therefore vital that secondary school teachers understand how to support and guide pupils with SLCN.
The policy context
It is 10 years since the term SLCN entered the popular lexicon. In 2008, John Bercow MP chaired an independent cross-party commission into the way in which children and young people with SLCN were supported. The report Bercow Review identified five key themes/problems:
- Communication is crucial to children’s life chances and yet awareness of its importance among the public and decision-makers is not sufficient.
- Strategic system-wide approaches to supporting SLCN are rare. Very often SLCN does not feature in national or local policies.
- Services are inaccessible and inequitable. Too often support for children’s SLCN is planned and funded based on the available resources, rather than what is needed, leading to an unacceptable level of variation across the country.
- Support that makes a difference is based on the evidence of what works. However, service design and cuts frequently do not take account of the evidence we have.
- Too many children with SLCN are being missed and are not getting the vital support they need.
To address these five key themes, the commission set out 40 recommendations. Chief among them were the following:
First, the commission said that communication was critical. Everyone must understand speech, language and communication better. To achieve this aim, clear messages and information should be developed for parents and carers. This support should be recognised as essential to improving social mobility, health inequality and employment.
Second, a new cross-government strategy for children should be developed, with speech, language and communication at its core. Proposals to transform provision for children and young people’s mental health should be strengthened to recognise the importance of SLCN in mental health.
Third, there should be an accessible and equitable service. Children and young people with SLCN should get the support they need, wherever they live. Local areas should be provided with data on estimated SLCN in their population. A programme of training on joint commissioning for SLCN should be funded.
Fourth, support needed to make a difference. As such, decisions about SLCN support should be made based on what we know will make the greatest impact.
Government should support the development of evidence-based integrated pathways for children with SLCN. An evaluation programme for innovative models of school-based support should be funded and Ofsted training should ensure inspectors focus on SLCN.
Finally, there needed to be better early identification and intervention. It is essential that the signs of SLCN are spotted early and acted on. Understanding of speech, language and communication should be embedded in initial qualifications and CPD for all relevant practitioners.
In its response, published in December 2008, the government accepted many of the recommendations. Its subsequent action plan contained a range of initiatives to improve services for young people with SLCN and to raise awareness of the importance of speech, language and communication across the whole children’s workforce. But it wasn’t enough.
Ten years on…
In March 2018, 10 years after the Bercow Review, the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT) and children’s communication charity I CAN published a progress report. It argues that, as a nation, we are still to grasp the significance of SLCN and as a result, hundreds of thousands of children and their families continue to suffer needlessly.
More than 1.4 million children and young people in the UK have SLCN. Language disorders alone are one of the most common disorders in childhood, affecting nearly 10 per cent of children and young people everywhere throughout their lives. What’s more, in areas of social disadvantage this number can rise to 50 per cent, including those with delayed language as well as children with identified SLCN.
Poor understanding of and insufficient resourcing for SLCN mean too many children and young people receive inadequate, ineffective and inequitable support, affecting their educational outcomes, their employability and their mental health.
The RCSLT says that, “without a shift in approach, children and young people will continue to leave school without basic language and literacy skills … we will continue having disproportionate numbers of young people with SLCN who are not in education, employment or training, who need mental health support or who are in contact with the youth justice system … (and) children and young people with lifelong communication needs will not get the support and adjustments they require”.
In this series I will explore what more secondary schools, both school leaders and teachers, can do to support pupils with SLCN. The first action is to ensure that schools are correctly identifying pupils with SLCN.
Identification of need
Department for Education (DfE) census data from January 2018 shows that the percentage of pupils with SEN increased from 14.4 per cent in 2017 to 14.6 per cent in 2018 and that the percentage of pupils with a Statement or Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) increased from 2.8 to 2.9 per cent. A further 1,022,535 pupils were on SEN support in January 2018, this equates to 11.7 per cent of the total pupil population, an increase from 11.6 per cent in 2017.
The 2018 data shows that SLCN remains one of the most significant causes of SEN with 22.8 per cent of pupils with SEN support and 14.6 per cent of pupils with a Statement or EHCP being identified as having SLCN as their primary need.
Most statistics suggest an average seven per cent of young people have some form of SLCN, that’s two pupils in every class. So why are many secondary school teachers seemingly unaware of it?
One reason, I think, is the fact that pupils’ needs are often being wrongly identified and coded when they move to secondary school. This has legal implications because, according to the SEND Code of Practice (2014), schools have a statutory duty to publish information on their website about how they implement their policy for SEN (the SEN Information Report) and this must include information on “policies for identifying children and young people with SEN and assessing their needs”. If SLCN is not being correctly identified, those policies are clearly ineffective, and pupils may suffer the consequences.
The Communication Trust believes that an average of 40 per cent of children with SLCN are not being identified as such and the most difficult to spot are older pupils, particularly those who have difficulties with vocabulary (45 per cent not identified), formulating sentences (52 per cent not identified), or difficulties understanding (48 per cent not identified).
That’s not to say that primary pupils are always identified correctly and supported, but a far greater proportion of pupils go unidentified or wrongly coded when they transfer to secondary school. Take, for example, that last statistic of 48 per cent. The same figure for primary schools is 29 per cent – still clearly a concern, but nowhere near as bad as in secondary.
Ofsted has reported on this problem of identification. They say that inspection evidence suggests some children and young people have been “allocated support for their behaviour when, in fact, they had specific communication needs.”
The Communications Trust says that, because “SLCN is often under-identified … it’s important to think about how many pupils you might typically expect to have SLCN in your school. This way you can see if your current data suggests there could be pupils who have not been identified or who have been misidentified.”
SLCN can be complex and difficult to identify, so an on-going focus on identification is absolutely imperative. If an average seven per cent of young people have SLCN, and your school has a close-to-average SEN population of 14 to 15 per cent, you can expect your school population to mirror this. In other words, you can expect two in every class of 30 pupils to have some form of SLCN.
In May 2010, the government published a report focused on the transitions between categories of SEN for pupils with SLCN and autism. It argued that pupils who initially had SLCN and who changed their category of primary need when they transferred to secondary school were most likely to be identified as having moderate or specific learning difficulties.
The report went on to argue that “the decline in the proportion of pupils identified as having SLCN as the pupils progress through secondary school needs close monitoring to ensure that … pupils are being properly identified in terms of their special needs in the first instance (and that) pupils who do have SLCN receive adequate support as they progress through secondary school.”
The report also found that, although the main problem was that many pupils were not identified as SLCN, some who were identified as such were in fact pupils for whom English was an additional language. It said that further investigation was needed in order to determine whether there was systematic misidentification of children’s needs.
In the second part of this series next week (January 17), I’ll look at how schools and teachers can identify pupils with SLCN, including the common risk factors and characteristics of SLCN. I will also consider how we can raise the profile of SLCN in schools to better support pupils. The remainder of this series will consider how to deliver quality first teaching, differentiation and interventions that help pupils with SLCN.