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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 4th July 2018.

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

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.