Speech, Language and Communication Support for Children — [Ms Nadine Dorries in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 4 July 2018.

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Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow Conservative, Taunton Deane 9:30, 4 July 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered speech, language and communication support for children.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, especially given your own interest in communication, reading and writing.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

Order. I am sorry to interrupt, Ms Pow, but I notice that a lot of Members are wearing jackets. There is a temporary air conditioning unit in the room, but I am not sure how effective it will be. If anybody wishes to remove their jacket, they should feel free to do so.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow Conservative, Taunton Deane

Thank you, Ms Dorries.

The most fundamental life skill for children is the ability to communicate, which has a direct impact on their ability to learn and develop friendships, and on their life chances. There are huge benefits to getting communication—speech and language development— right from birth, not just to the individual but to society and the economy as a whole. However, despite the best efforts of many involved in supporting children and young people, and some tremendous individual projects and programmes, such as the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, which I welcome here today, the communication champion Jean Gross, the Communication Council, the charity I CAN, and many more, including individual teachers and early years staff, awareness of the importance of children and young people’s speech, language and communication among the public and decision makers still seems sadly lacking. That has a serious impact on individuals and society, hence this debate.

Mr Speaker must be commended for his dedicated interest in this area, and for the Bercow report, a seminal piece of work that was carried out 10 years ago. It was an independent review of the state of provision for children with speech, language and communication needs—that is a bit of a mouthful, so I will refer to it as SLCN. Much good work flowed from that excellent report, including the better communication research programme, and the communication champion I mentioned. However, the recent follow-up report, “Bercow: Ten Years On”, which was published in March by the children’s communication charity I CAN and the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, and launched in style in Speaker’s House with, I am pleased to say, the Minister in attendance, revealed that despite pockets of great achievement, not enough progress has been made, and that it is a Cinderella sector.

I surmise that that may be linked to the fact that the whole area seems to fall between two stools: health and education. Somehow, it fails to be allotted the place it deserves in this country’s national policy. The second report highlights that, as a nation, we are yet to grasp the significance that not fully focusing on the importance of speech, language and communication has on younger generations and, therefore, on society as a whole. As a result, thousands of children and families suffer needlessly.

Evidence gathered in the report from thousands of contributors concluded that 1.4 million children and young people in the UK have SLCN. That is 10% of children and young people. Of those, 7.6% have developmental language disorder, which is a condition where children have problems understanding and/or using the spoken language and there is no obvious reason, such as a hearing problem or a physical disability, to explain those difficulties. The rest of that 10% have language disorders associated with other conditions, such as autism or a hearing impairment, plus other difficulties, including stammering. I will not address those conditions; this debate will concentrate on the 7.6% with developmental language disorder. Left untreated, it will adversely affect them for the rest of their lives.

I am interested in this area for a raft of reasons. Much of my career has been spent as a journalist and broadcaster, so communication has been a crucial part of my world and I appreciate how important it is. I also ran a small business. Even as MPs, we are employers, and when we are looking to take someone on, we are often looking for someone who can communicate—someone who is pleasant, amenable, good with words and able to converse and write clearly. Speech, language and communication skills are essential in our world. Most importantly, I am interested in this area as a parent. I have brought up three children with my husband, Charles, who I hope might be listening, so I am aware that parents can make a real contribution to helping their children develop their communication skills.

Photo of Jeremy Quin Jeremy Quin Conservative, Horsham

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech on an interesting topic. To pick up on her point about the value of communication in all professions, we should not forget teachers and the ability to train them through voice coaching. Two Essex multi-academy trusts have invested heavily in voice coaching for their teachers, and they have a much enhanced retention rate of 90%. Ensuring that teachers are educated, coached and assisted helps retention, and it provides a powerful example for the children in their care.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow Conservative, Taunton Deane

I will move on to talk about teachers and their role, including the things they have noticed and how we might help them. It is such an important point. I am particularly interested in those voice coaching projects.

I mentioned the detrimental effect that poor communication skills can have on children. Affected children do less well at school. From the get-go, they make less academic progress in the early years foundation stage than their contemporaries, and when they leave primary school their attainment in reading, writing and mathematics is much lower than those without SLCN. The report states that only 15% of those identified reached the expected standards. Unsurprisingly, those children are also affected at GCSE level; only 20.3% of SLCN children gain a grade 4 or C or above in English and maths at GCSE, compared with an expected 63.9% of all pupils. The pattern is clear: poor SLCN attainment will directly affect their academic progress.

On top of that, unfortunately, there is a high chance that those children will develop mental health issues. In fact, young people referred to mental health services are three times more likely to have SLCN. There is also a strong correlation between emotional and behavioural disorders and language difficulties.

Photo of Nick Smith Nick Smith Opposition Whip (Commons)

I thank the hon. Lady for her leadership on this subject, and it is great that she has secured the debate. The report’s recommendations on youth justice are really important, and it is clear that speech and language therapists can play a big part in reducing the risk of reoffending. Does she agree that it is important that those services are provided as early as possible to young people in the youth justice system?

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow Conservative, Taunton Deane

I know that the hon. Gentleman is particularly interested in this area. He makes a valid point, which I will move on to, because it all links up.

Everything I have mentioned so far affects children’s life chances. As Nick Smith has just said, that is borne out by the fact that 60% of young offenders have unidentified speech, language and communication problems, so the link between the two is stark. Children with poor vocabulary skills are twice as likely to be unemployed in later life. Young offenders are often put on courses, such as anger management and drug rehabilitation, to try to help them, but if they do not have good reading, writing and communication skills, it is difficult for them to take advantage of those courses. I am sure that you will agree, Ms Dorries, that none of those things is desirable in a 21st-century society.

There is even more to these findings, because many of these children come from areas of social disadvantage. There is a very high prevalence of SLCN among vulnerable children, particularly looked-after children. Again, looked-after children are highly represented in the criminal justice system—the 60% figure emerges again. Unsurprisingly, many excluded children are also found to have SLCN, particularly boys—one study found that 100% of excluded boys had some sort of communication or behavioural disorder.

Unsurprisingly, the children of mothers who have just given birth and who sadly have mental health issues, which can develop just before or after birth, are often found to display SLCN, probably because as babies they did not receive the crucial stimulation they needed, which is so important from the absolute outset. Such children do not develop the essential language skills. Again, that highlights how important it is to pick up mental health issues in mums as early as possible, because they can have a knock-on effect on the babies.

Parenting is really important, so I will talk about that for a moment—it is not a digression, because it is all directly related. This issue affects not only people from disadvantaged areas, but all of us, wherever we come from. It was motherhood that prompted my interest in the importance of early communication. My sister is a speech, language and communication therapist specialising in early years children—I may have to register an interest. She made me aware of how I ought to engage with my babies from the word go. I do not think I had even held a baby before I had my own children, so I was pretty ignorant about children. I am not saying that my children are model success stories, but I have to say that the tips I was given really helped.

They were just simple things. For example, from birth to three months, parents should get very close to their baby, so that it has eye contact and starts to recognise the mouth, and learns that that is where sounds come from. If children are just sat down in front of a television or a laptop, they will not start to realise that. At six months, a baby starts to become very aware of its environment, so parents should start to talk about the things they are looking at. Obviously, they are not speaking at that point, but they are looking, so parents should start naming the object they think their baby is looking at, whether it is a dog, a cat, a mug or a cup. Then, from nine to 12 months, parents can start to expand on that. Their baby might be in a high chair and pointing at a cup, so the parent should say the word, and they should say it many times, because repetition is how our children learn. Many people think that children do not really communicate until they start talking, but of course they are; they are picking up all those vital signals that will help them to start forming words. It is an utterly fascinating subject.

I am told that dummies really are a no-no. Nurseries staff I have spoken to have borne that out. If a dummy is put in a child’s mouth too often, it can affect the way the mouth develops. I discussed that only recently with a specialist facial consultant at Musgrove Park Hospital, and she agreed that we do not want to influence what happens in a baby’s mouth, because that has to grow and develop as well.

I will turn now to an area that I know is close to your heart, Ms Dorries: reading stories, poems and even songs. We can never do enough of that with our children, starting from the word go. I recently read an article by the author Philip Pullman, in which he bemoaned the fact that, sadly, not enough children are read to anymore and that the bedtime story is disappearing. Indeed, staff at a nursery in Taunton that I visited recently told me that many parents are ditching the bedtime story. The bedtime story is a crucial way for children to learn how to communicate, and again it is not to do with how wealthy someone is, or how smart they are. It is a cheap activity—almost free—that can help our children so much.

Some very interesting research on teaching effective vocabulary—produced by A. Biemiller—has shown that at age seven relatively high-performing children have an average of 7,100 words in their repertoire and that they can learn, on average, three words a day. However, relatively poor-performing children have an average of 3,000 words in their repertoire and learn, on average, one word a day. That is an enormous gap to fill if those relatively poor-performing children are to catch up when they get to school—I am told on good authority that it is almost impossible for them to catch up. Vocabulary at age five is the best predictor of a child’s outcomes at GCSE level.

Photo of Ruth Smeeth Ruth Smeeth Labour, Stoke-on-Trent North

I thank the hon. Lady for securing such an important debate. Stoke Speaks Out is one of the national exemplars of how to engage with this issue. Does she agree that we need sustained funding for such programmes? We have seen engagement in this work. In my constituency, 84% of children were 12 months behind in oral skills at the age of two. There was heavy investment and they eventually did well in their GCSEs, but funding was pulled for the children in the next years and we saw an exact inverse relationship in their long-term attainment. Does she agree that, in order to break the cycle, we need sustained funding for every year?

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow Conservative, Taunton Deane

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention; she makes a good point. I have heard about that extremely good project, and there are others. I know that the matter is on the Minister’s agenda. I think that this is a process of joining up the dots, so that we can make good progress, because it is really coming to light how important this issue is for society as a whole. We cannot expect teachers to do it all. They must be able to pick up where they have to, and rightly so, but there is a lot that parents can do, and we could give them many more pointers when they have children. We must engage society on the whole issue

To pick up on the hon. Lady’s point, many nurseries and primary schools in Taunton Deane have joined me in supporting the idea that we ought to engage with parents to encourage them to do a little more. For example, staff at Topps Nursery at Musgrove Park Hospital, which I visited last week, are really concerned about the number of children arriving at their door who simply do not have the expected communication skills, whatever their age. Many of those children are not potty-trained, which is a problem, but many also lack basic communication skills. It was the staff at that nursery who mentioned dummies and said, “Please don’t use them.” They also expressed concern about too many children being dumped in front of gadgets, so that they are not stimulated and do not have normal levels of human contact.

I also met a couple of headteachers from two of my really excellent primary schools, St George’s Catholic School and Trull Church of England VA Primary School. When I mentioned that I had secured this debate, both of them said that they had experienced a marked rise in the number of children who do not talk when they start school, who cannot hold a conversation, who do not listen, who have speech problems and who therefore have poor social interaction skills. I was quite taken aback when they so quickly came up with this list of issues that our teachers are clearly facing. Of course, those issues put an added burden on our already hard-working and professional nursery and teaching staff and practitioners.

Photo of Fiona Onasanya Fiona Onasanya Opposition Whip (Commons)

I thank the hon. Lady for securing this important debate. She is eloquently explaining the factors that inhibit our children’s development of communication skills. It is more than 10 years since Mr Speaker produced his first report, so does the hon. Lady agree that it is now time to implement its recommendations? In my constituency there is a lady called Helena, who was diagnosed with selective mutism and social anxiety. It is felt that if she had received the support she needed as a child, she would now, as an adult, be better able to contribute to society. However, she has great difficulty communicating and so is unable to work or go out alone. Does the hon. Lady agree that implementing the report’s recommendations would help address such factors?

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow Conservative, Taunton Deane

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. Of course I agree; early intervention is very much what we are talking about today. Intervention happens across the board in so many areas, but the earlier we can intervene to prevent an issue from escalating, the better—not only for the individual, but for society and the economy, because ultimately we will spend less money sorting it out. I spoke to one of my constituents, Clifford Mann. He heads up Musgrove Park Hospital A&E, but he is also the national clinical adviser for A&E. Although one might not think that this is his area, he expounded vociferously on the need for proactive pre-school engagement with this agenda—and others, such as tackling obesity—because it will pay dividends later for the NHS.

I do not want to be wholly negative, because there are already some exceptionally good programmes out there, doing good work and showing that we can improve in this area, not least the programme that my sister was involved in with Worcestershire Health and Care NHS Trust, which is quoted in the report as a model project. It references lots of other very good projects, such as the Time to Talk project in Warwickshire, the No Wrong Door project in North Yorkshire, and Better Start Southend. Another excellent project in my constituency is A.R.R.O.W. Tuition, run by Dr Colin Lane. It is a very good model that works really well: a multi-sensory blend of techniques combining established and innovative learning strategies, with the student’s own voice central to the approach. That touches on what my hon. Friend Jeremy Quin mentioned—using the voice to train and encourage—and it really does work.

Dr Lane has run a trial project—he has projects all over the place, but I suggested that he speak to Taunton Academy, which is in a very disadvantaged part of Taunton. The academy has its issues, but it is really turning things around. It got in touch with me the other day to say that they took on Dr Lane’s project and it is working absolute miracles in the school. I am going back next week to present some prizes to the children, who have made so much progress with their speech and language. This is a project to help children once they are in school, so there are good projects, and I would appreciate the Minister’s views about how more of these projects can be harnessed and how we might integrate this very good practice and make the most of it. We do not need to reinvent the wheel; we could just engage some more of these projects.

However, despite there being clear evidence of the huge benefits that improving children’s communication skills can bring, the second Bercow report highlighted that many parents and carers found it difficult to find help for their children. They were not sure where to go, and I have to admit that I had difficulties trying to find out where one would go in Somerset. When those parents and carers did get appointments, waiting times were long and many found the support wanting.

What needs to be done to tackle the clear communications crisis among our children, and thereby improve social mobility, health inequality and employment for so many people? There are some pretty straightforward steps, building on the good foundations that this Government have already put in place and are working on. First, there should be clear messages from the start, raising awareness of the real difference that addressing the issue could make. Secondly, simple guidance should be provided to parents. For example, I am going to put something on my website. How about writing to all parents who have just had babies, offering ideas and suggestions? I am sure that there are some simple things we could do.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham mentioned, there should also be training for practitioners, including health visitors. Health visitors are so often the ones on the frontline who get sent in; it is largely they who spot the really difficult cases and deal with them. I recently spoke to Alison Kalwa, one of the wonderful health visitors in my constituency. She said, “Just give me a few more hours and a bit more time, and I could make so much difference with language development skills with the mum or dad and their baby.”

Having been to the launch of the Bercow report, I raised a lot of these issues in a letter to the Prime Minister, and I was really pleased with the interest she took in her response. She referenced the Department for Education’s plans to work with Public Health England to enable health visitors and early years practitioners to identify children’s SLCN early and put the right support in place. I would very much welcome the Minister saying a little more about that.

Overall, we need an overarching strategy with speech, language and communication at its core, and with a recognition that early identification is key. I very much welcome the recent announcement of an additional £20 billion for the NHS. One of the planks of that is mental health, so perhaps we have an opportunity to engage and harness some of that funding to work on communication needs so that we can prevent people developing mental health issues in the first place. That is where it would be so important for health providers to link together, with all the public bodies playing their part, including Public Health England, NHS England, the Care Quality Commission, NHS Improvement, Ofsted and the Youth Justice Board, which brings in the point that the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent made about offenders.

How about including children’s SLCN in those sustainability and transformation plans we keep hearing so much about? Of the 44 sustainability and transformation plans published in 2016, only three mention the issue. Surely there must be scope there. Perhaps Ofsted inspectors might be trained to ensure that children’s communication is part of everyday life. What is overridingly apparent to me is that the issue must be approached jointly by the health and social care sector and by the education sector—even in deciding which Minister we might like to answer us. It causes a slight dilemma: should it be the Department for Education or the Department of Health and Social Care? Who would it be better to raise the issue with? I am optimistic that this Minister has great links and communication skills and will hotfoot it to the Department for Education so that they can work jointly. I would love to hear his views on that.

I am optimistic that the Government can work on the issue, and it is brilliant that all these things are coming to light and so much work is being done. While I am at it, I have to put in a bid for something. In Parliament I often focus on issues relating to the environment, nature and the countryside, and one thing I have noticed is that many teachers and nursery practitioners have said how our children adore forest schools and getting outside to commune with nature. That is a great way to stimulate them and get their communication skills going, so let us work some of that into what we do as well. Things should not all be separate. Forest schools are a great way of engaging our children.

To sum up, if communication was given the priority it deserves, the 1 million-plus children in England who are suffering with communication problems could be helped. We should be thinking about the 7.6% whose life chances could be improved. Not addressing the issue will be a cost to society and the economy. If there are things out there that we can do to help, we must try to do them. If the issues are addressed, by engaging some of the excellent recommendations outlined in the second Bercow report, we will have wins for the individuals, for society and for the economy as a whole.

Photo of Preet Kaur Gill Preet Kaur Gill Shadow Minister (International Development) 9:58, 4 July 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries.

I start by acknowledging the tremendous level of support and activism there has been throughout the country to raise the profile of the “Bercow: Ten Years On” report and the need to improve speech, language and communication support for children and young people. That support is essential in improving the lives of the more than 1.4 million children and young people in the UK who have communication difficulties, too many of whom are not getting the support they need.

I welcome the representatives of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists who are here today, and thank it for all the work it has done. I also put on the record my thanks to Gillian Rudd from Birmingham City University in my constituency for her work raising awareness of this matter.

The petition on Parliament’s website regarding the “Bercow: Ten Years On” report has more than 10,500 signatures. That demonstrates the public’s desire to ensure that support for children and young people with speech, language and communication needs is improved, along with the support for their families, carers, teachers and other professionals.

The nationwide figures are stark. More than 10% of children and young people in the UK—some 1.4 million—have some form of persistent, long-term SLCN, and in areas of social disadvantage up to 50% of children can start school with delayed language or other identified SLCN. Across Birmingham, that translates to more than 21,000 children and young people with communication needs, 7.6% of whom will have a developmental language disorder and at least 1% of whom will stammer. Those children and young people would likely benefit from long-term support to enable them to achieve their full potential.

Let us not forget that we are also talking about the need for parents, carers, teachers and other professionals to be supported and equipped with the skills that they need. Those who have difficulty communicating can have problems with understanding and expressing themselves, including in social interactions. Imagine for a moment not being able to make yourself understood, not being able to understand what is being said to you, and not being able to make friends or develop positive relationships; it is a truly frightening thought.

Left unidentified and unsupported, difficulties with speech, language and communication can have a huge impact on children and young people’s life chances across a wide range of areas: educational attainment, behavioural issues, mental health and wellbeing, health inequalities, employment prospects, and interactions with the criminal justice system. “Bercow: Ten Years On” has demonstrated that more needs to be done to ensure better speech, language and communication support for children and young people who have SLCN.

The Minister has written to me outlining some of the things that the Government are doing, including focusing on closing the word gap at age five and working more closely with Public Health England to support health visitors and early years practitioners. That is a good start, but more needs to be done, particularly for the children and young people who need help beyond the age of five. Can the Minister confirm what discussions his Department has had with the Department of Health and Social Care, the Ministry of Justice, and the Youth Justice Board regarding the report? Furthermore, what plans does his Department have to extend the proposals to improve identification and support in respect of SLCN to children over the age of five?

As the Minister knows, I have written to the Prime Minister asking what the Department of Health and Social Care is doing in response to the report, given the need for specialist services. Joint commissioning between education and health, and the impact of communication difficulties on mental health and health inequalities, is absolutely integral.

In separate correspondence, the Minister for Care, Caroline Dinenage told me that

“more needs to be done to ensure that children with a stammer are able to access the communications support they need”,

and that

“the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Education will be considering what more could be done to strengthen commissioning of communication support.”

That interest from the Department of Health and Social Care is encouraging because, as the Minister knows, many children with SLCN are identified initially by health visitors. As speech and language therapy services are most often commissioned and provided as part of the health system, it is essential that the Department of Health and Social Care plays its full part in responding to the report. Only with cross-Government action can we improve the life chances of all children and young people with speech, language and communication needs.

“Bercow: Ten Years On” makes numerous recommendations to improve speech, language and communication support for children and young people, the most central of which is a cross-governmental strategy for children with speech, language and communication at its core. I wish to place on the record my support for the recommendations in the report. With that in mind, will the Minister commit to introducing a cross-Government strategy for children with speech, language and communication at its core? When will the Government formally respond to the “Bercow: Ten Years On” report? The Prime Minister committed to responding at Prime Minister’s questions on 21 March.

Finally, I thank Rebecca Pow for securing this very important debate and, of course, the Speaker of the House, John Bercow, for his leadership in this area. We all recognise how important communication is to our children, and I look forward to continuing to work with colleagues to ensure that we all play our part in helping to improve the life chances of all children and young people with speech, language and communication needs. If we do not, it is clear that we will be failing the next generation of children and young people.

Photo of David Duguid David Duguid Conservative, Banff and Buchan 10:04, 4 July 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Rebecca Pow on securing this important debate on a very important topic. As soon as I became aware of the topic, it reminded me that the subject of speech, language and communication needs—she’s right that it is a bit of a mouthful, so I will refer to it as SLCN—is a key factor in supporting patients of a condition that has come to be very close to my heart.

I chair the all-party group on a condition called 22q11.2 deletion syndrome—again, a bit of a mouthful—which is sometimes known as DiGeorge syndrome. For the purposes of this speech, I will refer to the condition by the abbreviation 22q. The genetic condition is not so rare, but it is often misdiagnosed or undiagnosed, and is estimated to affect anything from 1 in 4,000 to 1 in 1,000 births. It is the second most common chromosomal disorder after Down’s syndrome and is often described as “the most common genetic disorder you’ve never heard of”.

In the APPG meeting that I chaired last week, we were fortunate to be joined by clinical experts on the condition from Great Ormond Street, including Dr Debbie Sell, the principal speech and language therapist who specialises in speech disorders associated with cleft lip and palate, which is very common in 22q, along with developmental issues.

As a condition, 22q exemplifies the problems of SLCN. Indeed, speech and language disorders are a hallmark of 22q. Furthermore, given the very high incidence of mental health difficulties in people with 22q, irrespective of communication issues, combining the existing risk with the common existence of SLCN makes the group hugely vulnerable. Maximising their speech and language potential is especially important to their ability to benefit from non-pharmacological mental health interventions. Children with 22q frequently have developmental challenges, with language and speech disorders. Their understanding is often relatively intact, but words and sentences do not come at the expected age.

For example, three to four-year-olds might have only a handful of words and simple phrases. As pre-schoolers, they might need to be taught a gesture or signing system as an alternative means of communication until their verbal language starts to develop. During this period, therapy is essential in addressing attention and listening skills; developing the basic early communication skills of taking turns and making eye contact, much as my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane described earlier; helping parents interpret their child’s non-verbal communication cues and oral attempts; and supporting parents in learning and implementing a gesture system.

Once sounds and simple words start to emerge, therapy changes to developing vocabulary and sentence structure. Speech is often severely unintelligible, with atypical consonant production often associated with a problem with the soft palate or the back of the throat. Some 75% of cases need surgery from cleft lip and palate teams. Surgery to correct the problem is less likely to be successful than the same surgery in children without 22q, and often more than one surgery is required. Although surgery will improve the anatomy in order to speak clearly, speech therapy is still required to eliminate consonant errors. That is not an overnight or easy task and often requires intervention over at least two to three years and often more. Therapists need expert advice on how to correct the abnormal articulatory patterns from the cleft team’s speech and language therapist, collaborating with the community-based SLT.

Unfortunately, we know that access to intervention is often woefully inadequate and becoming more difficult. In 2017, a report on behalf of the clinical reference group for cleft lip and palate for NHS England showed unacceptable inequalities in SLT provision and outcomes across the UK, with large differences in the timing, intensity, regularity and quality of therapy for each child. The “Bercow: Ten Years On” report, which I will refer to later, concluded that therapy provision is a “postcode lottery”, based not on evidence but on costs and demand.

Children do respond to intervention and they can do well in the resolution of their early speech and language difficulties if they can access help. However, persistent expressive language difficulties and impaired abstract language are common in the school-age years. They struggle particularly when the school curriculum starts to become more abstract. Their language skills, involving humour, inferencing and sarcasm can drop off, and their academic skills can drop off too. My constituents who have children who suffer from a range of conditions often find that their frustration increases when their children move from one school year to another, and new teachers have to learn about the condition.

Accessing language therapy at school age is very difficult, and even worse in senior-school settings. The children start to fail educationally just at the time when their mental health issues can kick in. In the 13 months since I was elected to this place, I have had several constituents come to me who are affected by even rarer conditions than 22q, including genetic disorders such as Edwards syndrome, CHARGE syndrome—coloboma, heart defects, atresia choanae, growth retardation, genital abnormalities and ear abnormalities syndrome—and others. In those cases, I, along with the families affected, have been disappointed that clinicians sometimes view those rare cases as the statistical rarity that they represent, rather than treating the person as an individual patient in their own right.

The “Bercow: Ten Years On” report, which has been mentioned, states:

“Poor understanding of and insufficient resourcing for SLCN mean too many children and young people receive inadequate, ineffective and inequitable support, impacting on their educational outcomes, their employability and their mental health”,

as well as leading to an over-representation in the justice system. I, too, support the report’s recommendations, which are highly relevant to children and young people with 22q. It is critical that the Department of Health and Social Care plays its part in taking those recommendations forward.

Photo of Gareth Snell Gareth Snell Labour/Co-operative, Stoke-on-Trent Central 10:11, 4 July 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, and thank you for letting me indicate my wish to speak at such a late stage. I congratulate Rebecca Pow on securing this important debate, and on the tenacity with which she has pursued this issue pretty much every time I have been in the Chamber for questions and she has been able to raise it. The perspicacity of her speech demonstrates that she clearly has this issue in her heart; it is not something that she is doing simply because she can.

I want to touch on the Stoke Speaks Out scheme, which my hon. Friend Ruth Smeeth mentioned. It is a wonderful scheme, which Janet Cooper and her team have run for a number of years. The purpose of the scheme is to identify at a very early age young people in Stoke-on-Trent for whom speech and language could be a barrier to their overall development, aspiration and further opportunity.

The team at Stoke Speaks Out do wonderful work, but they have the never-ending problem of constantly having to reinvent the service that they are trying to deliver in order to qualify for new rounds of funding from various different funding agencies and bodies. The reality is that they have a model that works. It has been statistically proven to work, and they have a quantified dataset that shows that their interventions cause improvements. In fact, the baseline for readiness in Stoke-on-Trent schools in 2016 showed that only 35% of our young people were ahead or on track for speech standards, but after intervention by the Stoke Speaks Out team that figure had risen to 54% by July 2017. I think we would all agree that that is a remarkable achievement in such a short period of time for an organisation that was operating on a shoestring.

This is not an issue with our schools. The schools in our city are rated good or outstanding overall. This is a community issue and a societal issue, and it is a problem that is often missed. The most pertinent point that the hon. Member for Taunton Deane made was about early intervention outside school years. We have a disproportionate number of young people in Stoke-on-Trent for whom the 30 hours of nursery provision or pre-school arrangements simply are not available, because of their work arrangements or the hours threshold. That means that a lot of young people go directly from a home situation into a reception class. Headteachers around the constituency consistently tell me that young people benefit from provision in a nursery school setting, and that there is a marked and quantifiable difference in readiness for speech and language skills between children who come into school aged four and those who have been through nursery provision aged three.

The simple fact is that early intervention teams within the community health team cannot pick up every case where somebody may have an issue with speech and learning development. Stark statistics suggest that around half the young people in the constituencies of Stoke-on-Trent North, Stoke-on-Trent South and Stoke-on-Trent Central have up to a 12-month delay in their language skills by the age of three. As the hon. Member for Taunton Deane pointed out, that is a huge impediment to their future success.

Schools also talk to me quite readily about the fact that they struggle to get some parents to engage with at-home reading. That is sometimes down to parents not making the effort—we must be honest about that—but it is also because adult literacy rates in some parts of my constituency mean that parents do not have the confidence to sit down and read with their children from a very young age. Again, that can cause issues around how people parent. The hon. Member for Taunton Deane rightly pointed out that the “digital corner parent”, as we call it in our house, sometimes has a much greater presence in the young person’s life than it should, to the extent that a headteacher in one of my schools said that one of their problems was children coming in with American accents, because they watch American cartoons and TV, and that has become dominant. In some of my local schools, the words “soda” and “elevator” are now more commonly used than “pop” and “lift”, because that is the way that some parents arrange things.

Photo of Ruth Smeeth Ruth Smeeth Labour, Stoke-on-Trent North

I hate to interrupt a narrative about American television, but one of the most important things that Stoke Speaks Out has done is to deliver 3,000 free books to children across our city as part of the Stoke Reads project. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is as vital for parents as it is for children, as those parents start reading to their children?

Photo of Gareth Snell Gareth Snell Labour/Co-operative, Stoke-on-Trent Central

I thank my hon. Friend for her inevitable intervention. She is right: the more we can get parents reading, the better. My predecessor, Tristram Hunt, did a piece of work with every primary school child in Stoke-on-Trent Central. He arranged for them to receive a copy of H. E. Marshall’s “Our Island Story: A Child’s History of England” as they transitioned from primary to secondary school, so he could be certain that they would have something to read over the summer period. Those small things can go on to develop language skills.

There is also a wonderful organisation in Stoke-on-Trent called Beanstalk, which arranges for volunteers to go into school and read with children. I believe that the mother of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North is a volunteer with that programme. Whenever I go round schools I see teachers and headteachers who have used their pupil premium money in very innovative ways to get young people reading and understanding where language comes from. I must admit that I was somewhat confused when my seven-year-old daughter came home, having done phonics in her year 1 class, with “oohs” and “aahs” and lots of new language sounds that I certainly did not learn when I was at school.

Photo of Gareth Snell Gareth Snell Labour/Co-operative, Stoke-on-Trent Central

Yes, thank you—I was almost there.

That demonstrates to me that there are some wonderful ways in which we can start to tackle this problem, but the work has to be systemic and it has to be continued.

I will ask the Minister some important questions. How do the Government see early intervention work continuing, particularly for young people who are not in nursery provision before going to school?

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow Conservative, Taunton Deane

On the subject of different charities doing good work, in my constituency we have two really good branches of a charity called Read Easy, which work with adults on adult literacy. A lot of adults are scared to admit that they cannot read, but it is a really gentle, lovely way of engaging adults, because of course they cannot help their children if they cannot read properly themselves. The hon. Gentleman made a very good point about that.

Photo of Gareth Snell Gareth Snell Labour/Co-operative, Stoke-on-Trent Central

Once again, the hon. Lady is absolutely right. The headteachers I have spoken to in Stoke-on-Trent say that once they can get parents, who may have had quite an unpleasant time at school themselves, into the school and show them that it is a safe environment for them as well as their children, the engagement levels with those parents increase. Suddenly, the child’s homework gets better, the reading diary is filled in, there is more interaction with the school for pastoral and social events, and the family becomes a much more engaged part of the school community rather than simply dropping their children off and picking them up in the afternoon.

I would be grateful if the Minister explained what the Government can do on early intervention, because it looks as if many of the future funding promises will be geared towards schools, which are already overstretched. If we can reach young people before school, we can close the gap and ensure that their opportunities for learning are increased.

I would also be grateful if the Minister, if he is unable to answer today, could at least think about longer-term aspirational plans. Stoke-on-Trent is an opportunity area, with two wonderful co-chairs, Professor Liz Barnes and Carol Shanahan, leading the way. They know that early intervention and breaking the cycle early on is important. Will the Minister tell us how he sees that programme being funded sustainably? The opportunity area is a three-year programme and they will do what they can in their three years, but hat period will run out. How can we embed that work into our culture and society?

The schools in my constituency are working absolutely flat out to address this issue. I know that this is not a debate about fairer funding arrangements, but is there anything that the Minister could do to consider schools in areas such as Stoke-on-Trent, where deprivation levels are higher than we would like them to be on every metric? Might there be longer-term intervention programmes for our city? We need to make sure that the generation of MPs who follow me and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North are not also discussing this issue.

Photo of Marion Fellows Marion Fellows SNP Whip, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Small Business, Enterprise and Innovation) 10:20, 4 July 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate Rebecca Pow on securing the debate. She gave a wonderful, learned speech and talked of her own experiences. I found it really interesting.

Everyone who has spoken agrees that it is important that speech and language is set early on, and hon. Members have spoken of the different ways in which we can do that and how much it affects children’s life chances. That is also really important for the economy. I also give credence to the Bercow report and the follow-up report.

The hon. Member for Taunton Deane talked about how many young offenders have speech and language difficulties, and that is an important point. I enjoyed how the hon. Lady spoke about teaching our children to speak. I have three children and three granddaughters, and I have always talked to my children. Sometimes now I notice that some of my grandchildren and some of my friends’ grandchildren—I am not pointing any fingers—are, as Gareth Snell said, growing up with an American accent. In some cases in Scotland, they are growing up with an English accent because they listen to English TV programmes made in England. Really, children should be speaking their own language—it makes it much easier for them all round.

Preet Kaur Gill highlighted the problems across England and congratulated the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists on its work. I am glad to see so many members of the Royal College here today.

David Duguid is chair of the all-party parliamentary group on 22q11 syndrome. I have had dealings with a constituent who left Banff and Buchan and moved to Motherwell and Wishaw, who has spoken to me at great length about that issue. I will help her, but am unable to help as much as I would like, because that is a devolved issue in Scotland. I have signposted her to the local Member of the Scottish Parliament so that she can get the help she needs. Some of the stories she told me are heart-rending—the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan exemplified that point.

Language is such an important foundation for the whole education process. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central mentioned that 50% of children under three years old in his area have up to a 12-month delay in language skills. The UK cannot afford those delays, which affect the life of the children and which, as we have heard, can lead to offending. That must be addressed. The hon. Gentleman talked about the importance of early intervention, which is a keystone of Scottish Government policy. If, as the First Minister hopes, we are to close the educational attainment gap, it is before children go to school that a lot of work needs to be done to help them.

The Scottish Government believe that it is vital that speech and language communication support for children is evidence-based and responds to the needs of the child. The “Getting it right for every child” plan is Scotland-wide and is at the heart of early intervention.

People talk about the crossover between health and education. Great progress has been made on that in Scotland. NHS Education for Scotland has recently announced a new educational resource to help meet speech, language and communication needs. It is an interactive, portable tool that people such as health visitors can take into family homes to pick up on language difficulties early on. It helps them to signpost parents to where they can get more help and support for their children, in order to prevent the gap and language delay before children start school or nursery.

There are many free book schemes in Scotland for young children at nursery age and in primary 1. Sometimes, if a child brings home a book, the parent is more likely to be pestered into reading to the child. That is also something that the Minister might look at. There has been some co-operation with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which also gives out free books. It is vital that children are read to and learn to read as quickly as possible so that their whole education has a much more sound basis.

In 2016, the Scottish Government held a communications summit jointly with the RCSLT, and work is ongoing. They have called for an action plan to support the changing and growth of speech, language and communication assets and have asked for key stakeholder support.

The Bookbug club runs in my constituency, as it does in many Scottish libraries—I do not know whether they run in England, but in Scotland, almost all local libraries run Bookbug sessions, to which parents with children as young as three months can go along. They work on language and singing. I attended one in Perth with my granddaughter and it was great fun. At one time, I wondered what the benefit was so early on—she was six months old when I took her—but it is of great benefit and supports the point about children picking up early on language.

I have a wonderful resource in the Wishaw part of my Motherwell and Wishaw constituency at Orchard Primary School. It has a language unit for children with a wide range of language difficulties. Some children need to be taught in the unit, but many go into the mainstream primary school. I have had great reports from constituents whose children are autistic or somewhere on the spectrum, who have been able to go on to a mainstream secondary school because their language skills have been so much improved by the unit.

The Scottish Government are still working with the Royal College, which is helping them to go over the submissions that have been made, to get the action plan up and running across Scotland to aid the development of our young children. The working group is looking forward to producing that action plan.

I ask the Minister to look at what the Scottish Government are doing and use that as part of the evidence. In Scotland, we sometimes do things differently—not always better, but differently—in a number of areas. Since I came to this place, I have noticed that there is sometimes a reluctance to look close to home, at what is being done north of the border, to see where it might help improve the situation. We are not exclusive. We want to help everybody, and we might help children in England as well, so I encourage the Minister to look at that. It is vital that our children acquire these skills, and I am happy to speak to him about anything he wishes to know. From my service on the Education Committee, I know that such discussion does not always happen. This is about children’s life chances and giving them the best possible start in life so that the whole economy can benefit. Children can benefit, and their families will too—everyone will benefits if we can put that into practice.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families) 10:30, 4 July 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I thank Rebecca Pow for securing today’s debate, 10 years on from the Bercow report, on this important topic. I pay tribute to Mr Speaker, I CAN and the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists for their groundbreaking work in this area, and to all hon. Members who have spoken today.

Many of us take communication for granted, but imagine being unable to express how you feel, what you think and what you need. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) described that scenario eloquently. The effects can be debilitating and can last throughout childhood and adolescence and well into adulthood if someone is left unsupported. I know myself how frustrating that can be. Growing up with dyspraxia—being different and standing out—caused me to have chronic low self-esteem and to isolate myself from my peers. Of course, I did all right in the end —I ended up in this place—but that is because I got lucky and have had the benefit of being surrounded, then and now, by some phenomenal people. For the 1.4 million children who struggle with speech, language and communication needs, it is vital that the right support is there when they need it, but it is often lacking. Our children are being let down to the degree that, at present, six children in every classroom do not meet the expected levels of communication and language skills at age five.

Children with speech, language and communication difficulties can access speech therapy and support via a number of avenues, including their health visitor, GP or school, but the Government have presided over a decline of more than 2,000 health visitors in the past two years. Fewer GPs are in place than in 2015, and our schools are facing the first real-terms funding cuts in 20 years—more than £2 billion is being cut from their budgets. It is little wonder, then, that the “Bercow: Ten Years On” report highlighted that 73% of parents and carers found it difficult to get help with their child’s speech, language and communication needs, and 52% thought their family’s experience of speech, language and communication support was poor.

As my hon. Friend Gareth Snell said, the original Bercow report called for early intervention that prioritises speech, language and communication therapy in Sure Start children’s centres, 500 of which the Government have closed. The report called for the workforce to be strengthened, but senior and specialist language posts are being lost due to a restructuring of NHS speech and language therapy services. It called for the primary and secondary curriculum to emphasise speech and language communication. Instead, speaking and listening has been removed from the national curriculum, the judgment of communication has been removed from the Ofsted framework and there is no assessment of spoken language in the curriculum after the age of five. Some 49% of early years practitioners receive little or no initial training in typical speech, language and communication development.

The Communications Trust—a large consortium of speech and language and communications skills charities—saw demand for its services increase by 33% last year, but in March this year the Department for Education told us that its contract would be ending. The tender to replace it has no mention at all of speech, language and communication. The “Bercow: Ten Years On” report highlighted that only 15% of survey respondents said that speech and language therapy was available as required in their local area. It is little wonder that, last year, only 234,076 children with speech, language and communication needs actually received any support.

The pattern of Government neglect is more apparent when children have needs in addition to speech and language difficulties, or get support via education and healthcare plans. The hash the Government have made of those plans is well documented. They were supposed to encourage joined-up planning between healthcare professionals and schools, but in reality that is not happening. It is often said that health is missing from the plans. At least 65,000 children were not moved on to the new plans by the Government’s deadline of March this year. A damning report by the local government and social care ombudsman, which looked at a large sample of plans, found many flaws in their execution.

A report by the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists noted that children without plans are being left completely without support. Just 40% of respondents said that they have the capacity to deliver services to children without a plan, and 43% said that speech and language therapy is not being commissioned for the crucial age group of nought to two, or for people aged 18 to 25, who are preparing for work or further education.

The Bercow report revealed that more than half of parents and carers had to wait longer than six months for their child to get the help they needed. Six months is a long time in a child’s developmental cycle. My six-year-old constituent, Penny Whyte, has a speech disorder and has been receiving blocks of speech therapy since the age of three, but she has to wait an average of nine months between blocks. She was also referred to intensive therapy, but has had to wait three years for a place. Imagine being Penny’s mam, Donna, who knows that her little girl is just as bright and capable—perhaps more so—than everyone else, but she is falling behind her peers. Her true potential is masked because the support she needs is being withheld by a fragmented system that cares more about marketisation and the profit that can gleaned from health and education services than about their delivery.

The Government talk a good game when it comes to social mobility, but the reality is different. In areas of social disadvantage, 50% of children start school with delayed language and communication skills. Children eligible for free school meals are 2.3 times more likely than their peers to have language difficulties. Only 51% of those pupils achieve a good level of development at the end of their early years foundation stage, compared with 69% of their peers. Children with special educational needs or disability remain stubbornly over-represented in alternative provision and exclusion figures. Three quarters of pupils in pupil referral units have special educational needs. Last year alone, more than 4,000 were left without a school place. Some are subject to informal exclusions, and some are being home-schooled. The fact is that the Government have not bothered to keep track of those children, so we do not know where they are and what support, if any, they are getting.

I want to give a shout out, if you will permit me, Ms Dorries, to some of the non-verbal children I worked with in the past, who are now adults. They taught me the power of communication, which is so much more than words. It can be a smile, a sparkle in the eye, a nod of the head, a hand movement, a laugh or a cry. What they all had in common is that, once they had the right support and were able to use words, they were like different children. One boy I remember in particular transformed from being stoic and withdrawn into being a massive chatterbox—the life and soul of his classroom. That is the power of consistent and sustained speech and language therapy. That power is in the gift of the Minister and the Government.

The Prime Minister said months ago that she would respond formally to the report. She has not done so. The Minister said a few weeks ago in Education questions that he was looking closely at the recommendations. I have not asked the Minister any questions today, because I simply want him to respond to my comments, those of my hon. Friends, and the report’s findings and recommendations. The children struggling to get by, my constituent Penny Whyte and my younger self at least deserve that.

Photo of Nadhim Zahawi Nadhim Zahawi The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 10:38, 4 July 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries.

Mrs Lewell-Buck started well by asking us to imagine what it would feel like to be unable to communicate or explain one’s own feelings, and Preet Kaur Gill said the same thing. I do not need to imagine that, because I was that child. I came to this country with my parents as immigrants in 1978 at the age of 11, and I could not speak English. I sat at the back of the class. Initially, my teachers thought I had learning difficulties, but within six months I had picked up the language. I guess I am the embodiment of what speech, language and communication skills can do for a young child immigrant in this country who cannot speak the language properly.

I feel, however, that the hon. Member for South Shields let herself down by politicising this debate—we have had a good debate today—and attempting to weaponise it, whereas Gareth Snell, and his colleague Ruth Smeeth in an intervention, spoke eloquently about the work being done by Stoke Speaks Out and in the opportunity area. I must say to both hon. Members that the opportunity areas are the best infrastructure I have seen, of any Government intervention, and have a real chance of working for those disadvantaged communities because they are bottom-up, with real, measurable targets and outcomes. My ambition is to ensure that we meet those targets over three years so that I can make the argument that we should keep supporting opportunity areas.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Rebecca Pow on securing this important debate, and I am grateful for this opportunity to set out the Government’s position on supporting children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities, including those with speech, language and communication needs. I am determined to see children and young people with SLCN receive the support they need to achieve in school and in independent life.

I was pleased to be able to speak at the launch of “Bercow: Ten Years On”, and I am grateful for the work that the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, I CAN and, of course, Mr Speaker himself have done. It was a good coming together of all the specialists, and I put it on the record that the Government will respond formally to the report in due course. I have recently accepted an invitation from the all-party parliamentary group on speech and language difficulties to discuss how we can work together to best support children and young people with SLCN. I hope hon. Members here, and others, will join me in attending the seminar.

Our latest figures show that SLCN is the second commonest need for pupils with an educational health and care plan, with 14.3% of pupils having that need. It is also the second commonest need for those with special educational needs support, at 22%. I know that the “Bercow: Ten Years On” review reports that there is a poor understanding of SLCN and insufficient resourcing for the sector, and many colleagues have talked about that. Of course, that is neither my nor the Government’s expectation. I expect children and young people with SLCN to receive the support they need to help them fulfil their aspirations alongside their peers, and we are taking action to make that a reality.

Turning to the SEND reforms of 2014, a lot of progress has been made over the 10 years since the original Bercow review was carried out. The Government have introduced, through the Children and Families Act 2014, the biggest change to the system in a generation. The reforms are about improving the support that is available to all children and young people with SEND. We are doing that by joining up services for ages nought to 25 across education, health and social care, and by focusing on positive outcomes in education, employment, housing, health and community participation. The move to a more child-centred, multi-agency and participative education, health and care needs assessment is improving the support that is available to children and young people with SEND, including those with SLCN.

As of 31 March, over 236,000 children and young people had had their statement of SEN converted to an EHC plan, which equates to 98.4%. That is great news, but we know there is much more to do. The completion of the statutory transition period to the new system is a great achievement, but it is not the end point for the reforms. We are only part of the way to achieving our vision. The biggest issue we now have to address is changing the culture in local government, clinical commissioning groups and education settings.

Photo of Nadhim Zahawi Nadhim Zahawi The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I am short of time and I have a lot to say about this subject, so the hon. Lady will forgive me if I do not.

Supporting schools to respond to the needs of all their pupils is crucial to achieving our ultimate goal of culture change. We know that spoken language underpins the development of reading and writing, and that the quality and variety of language that pupils hear and speak is vital for developing their vocabulary, grammar, reading and writing. The national curriculum for English, which colleagues mentioned in their comments, reflects the importance of spoken language in pupils’ development across the whole curriculum. At primary level, children should be taught to ask relevant questions, to articulate and justify answers, arguments and opinions, to participate in collaborative conversation, to use spoken language to develop understanding and to speak audibly and fluently, with an increasing command of English. Teachers should ensure the continual development of pupils’ confidence and competence in spoken language and listening skills.

Having developed those resources and many others relating to other specific impairments, we are now taking a more strategic approach to better supporting the educational workforce and equipping them to deliver high-quality teaching across all types of SEN. We have recently contracted with the Whole School SEND Consortium to enable schools to identify and meet their SEND training needs, and I am delighted that the Communication Trust is part of that consortium.

Through that work, the Whole School SEND Consortium will create regional hubs across the country to bring together local SEND practitioners. The hubs will work to encourage schools to prioritise SEND within their continuous professional development and school improvement plans. The resources provide leaders, teachers and practitioners with access to information about evidence-based practice that can be effective for SEN support, including for those with SLCN.

In terms of joint work and joint commissioning at local authority level, the duty to commission services jointly is vital to the success of the SEND reforms. We recognise that unless education, health and social care partners work together, we will not see that holistic approach to a child’s progression or the positive outcomes that the system aims to achieve. Joint working is one of the best ways of managing pressures on local authority and NHS budgets. Looking for more efficient ways to work together, to share information and to avoid duplication will work in favour of professionals and families.

Some areas are demonstrating excellent joint working. Wiltshire is an example, with positive feedback on the effectiveness of its local joint commissioning arrangements. It was reported that senior officers across education, health and care worked together effectively, adopting a well-integrated and multi-agency approach to plan and deliver services to children and young people with SEND. We want to learn from those examples. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central mentioned the evidence gathered through Stoke Speaks Out. It troubles me that that particular group of people have to keep reinventing and going back for different pots of money, rather than our looking at that evidence and beginning to scale it for the rest of the country.

Photo of Ruth Smeeth Ruth Smeeth Labour, Stoke-on-Trent North

One of the challenges with Stoke Speaks Out is that when it started in 2006 it had 30 staff, but in 2015 it went down to half a member of staff. Now it has gone back up to nearly 10, but its funding is being cut again. That inconsistency is not delivering for the children of Stoke-on-Trent.

Photo of Nadhim Zahawi Nadhim Zahawi The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I hear the hon. Lady’s point; I know she is a great champion of the project, and I pledge to her that I will look at this evidence and see what more we can do to ensure that there are consistent outcomes.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central talked about early years education. It is fundamental that we identify SLCN as early as possible, as we know that can have a profound impact later in life. Children who struggle with language at age five are six times less likely to reach the expected level in English at age 11 than children who have good language skills at age five, and 11 times less likely to achieve the expected level in maths. By age three, disadvantaged children are, on average, already almost a full year and a half behind their more affluent peers in their early language development. That is also why, from a social mobility perspective, the case for addressing SLCN in the early years is so important.

In our social mobility action plan, “Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential”, we announced our ambition to close the word gap in the early years between disadvantaged children and their peers.

Photo of Nadhim Zahawi Nadhim Zahawi The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I will make some progress and then, as I think we might be all right on time, I will give way.

We have announced a range of measures worth more than £100 million to address word gap, including £20 million for school-led professional development for early years practitioners to support early language development, and a £5 million “what works” fund in partnership with the Education Endowment Foundation. The evidence is clear that parents have a crucial role in this area. The “Study of Early Education and Development” report showed that, aside from maternal education, the home learning environment is the single biggest influence on a child’s vocabulary at age three. We will therefore invest £5 million to trial evidence-based home learning environment programmes in the north of England.

On 1 July, we launched a £6.5 million fund and invited voluntary and community sector organisations to bid for grants to run projects that help disadvantaged families and children with additional needs, and improve children’s early language and literacy skills. Local authorities sit at the centre of a wide range of services and workforces that make a big difference to SLCN. We will work with local authorities through a peer support and challenge programme to deliver better early language outcomes for disadvantaged children, learning from the best evidence so that we can scale it. We will also publish an early years dashboard showing local authorities’ performance in early years outcomes, with a focus on disadvantaged children and early language and literacy.

We recognise the important links between a child’s early health and development and their later education outcomes. That is why we have formed a partnership with Public Health England, which my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane mentioned, and the Department of Health and Social Care to improve early language outcomes for disadvantaged children. In May, Public Health England launched a call for good local practice and pathway examples. At a workshop in London today, it will set out the key components of a model speech, language and communication needs pathway built on the best evidence and experience of implementation in practice. Those resources will provide health visitors with additional tools and training to identify and support children’s SLCN, and ensure that the right support is put in place early.

Let me turn to the mental health Green Paper. Mental health was another key feature of the “Bercow: Ten Years On” report, which highlighted the links between SLCN and mental health issues and made a number of recommendations about how the proposals in the Green Paper link with SLCN provision. The Government published the Green Paper, “Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision”, on 4 December last year. The consultation closed on 2 March and we are currently considering responses. We will issue a formal response in due course.

The Green Paper creates clear expectations about the changes every area should seek in order to improve activity on prevention, partnership working between children and young people’s mental health services and schools, and access to specialist support. As part of that, we are incentivising every school and college to train a designated senior lead for mental health to co-ordinate a whole-school approach to mental health and wellbeing. We expect the designated senior lead to liaise with speech and language therapists to ensure that children with SLCN receive the help they need.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

I thank the Minister for eventually giving way. He said that I had let myself down by making this issue political. I respectfully say that he is letting me and other hon. Members down. I listed a litany of failures by this Government towards children with speech, language and communication needs, and not once—

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

Order. Mrs Lewell-Buck, please make an intervention, not a speech.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

Sorry. Not once has the Minister responded with anything practical. All he says is, “In the future we will”. What about now? This is urgent.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

I call the Minister. Please remember to leave a minute for Ms Pow to wind up the debate.

Photo of Nadhim Zahawi Nadhim Zahawi The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

Of course, Ms Dorries.

The Department of Health and Social Care recognises the need to support children and young people with SLCN who are in the justice system. Liaison and diversion services at police stations and courts identify and assess people with vulnerabilities and refer them to the appropriate services—where appropriate, away from the justice system altogether.

A comprehensive health assessment tool care plan is undertaken for all children, setting out their needs and the provision of health services. All sites have access to the full range of comprehensive child and adolescent mental health provision for children with mental health or neuro-disability needs, including child psychiatrists and psychologists, specialist nurses, occupational therapists and speech and language therapists.

Let me address the point that was made by Marion Fellows about the devolved Scottish Government. I am more than happy to come up and learn what the Scottish Government are undertaking, and to share good practice from England.

My hon. Friend David Duguid mentioned the niche chromosomal deficiency 22q11.2. I am happy to discuss that with him to understand it a little better. I already work closely with my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care to raise the issue of practitioners treating people as statistical outliers, rather than as real children with real families, and I will take what he said on board.

I am grateful for the support right hon. and hon. Members have given this agenda. My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane raised important concerns and I hope that she is happy with my update. The steps the Government have taken show the importance of SLCN, and I hope I have demonstrated that we remain firmly committed and have a real strategy, real funding and real commitment to ensure that children and young people with SLCN receive the support they need.

I thank my hon. Friend again for giving me the opportunity to speak about this subject. I look forward to seeing some colleagues who are present at the APPG on speech and language difficulties.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow Conservative, Taunton Deane 10:56, 4 July 2018

I thank the Minister, in particular for sharing his experience—I had no idea that he could not speak English until he was 11; it is remarkable how far one can go—and for his clear passion. I hope that stands us in good stead to answer some of the questions that have been raised. I hope that we can work together.

I thank all Members who took part in the debate: my hon. Friends the Members for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) and for Horsham (Jeremy Quin), and the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell), for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth)—Stoke had a good showing—and for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill). There is clearly great interest in this area, and I hope that the debate has highlighted that there are far too many children with speech, language and communication disorders, which affect their life chances.

Too many children end up having mental health issues, being excluded from school and being young offenders—and ultimately, many end up unemployed. That is not good enough, and we ought to be able to address it. The debate, the Bercow report and, indeed, many of the excellent people watching the debate demonstrate that things do not have to be like this.

As the Minister outlined, a great deal of excellent work is in progress, and there is much more in the pipeline. I get the feeling from speaking to him and from what he said today that he is committed to improving the situation, and there are some simple steps that could improve it. I was pleased to hear that there will be a particular concentration on joint working and joint commissioning of services between health and education, which was one of the things I wanted to ensure came out of the debate.

The continuity of programmes and good projects is also important. I know—especially from my sister’s input—about the awful drama and time-wasting that is involved in having to keep reapplying for funding when people already have a good thing going. That wastes time and everybody’s effort. Perhaps we could try to smooth that out a little.

I am pleased that the all-important issue of parenting was raised. I touched on that because it is not only about very disadvantaged people; it is about everybody. If we engaged a little more on that front, we could make huge progress together. I am optimistic that, with the commitment of the Minister and his Department and of the Department of Health and Social Care, we can make a change.

Question put and agreed to.


That his House has considered speech, language and communication support for children.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

Will Members please leave the Chamber quietly? The next debate is about to start.