SEN: Getting SLCN support right in your school

Effective support for children with speech, language and communication needs is essential, but how does your school measure up? Ten years on from the Bercow Review, Mary Hartshorne looks at the situation today and gives us a checklist for best practice.

How effective is your school in supporting the language and communication skills of students?

Earlier this year, the Oxford University Press published Why Closing the Word Gap Matters (April 2018), reporting on a survey of more than 1,000 teachers asking about levels of students’ vocabulary in their schools.

A total of 840 of the respondents were from secondary schools and you may not be surprised by the results: 40 per cent felt students lacked the vocabulary to access learning, and more than 60 per cent of secondary teachers felt the gap between students with poor word knowledge and their peers was increasing.

Knowing the powerful link between pupils’ vocabulary and their learning and wider performance, these findings really matter. Vocabulary at five is the most important factor in predicting literacy outcomes at age 11 (Save the Children, 2016) – but it is not just vocabulary in the earlier years which matters. A recent study showed that vocabulary scores at age 13 strongly predict both maths and English literature GCSE results.

The OUP survey results support what is well known now: in some secondary schools, particularly in deprived areas, many students have speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). One study showed this to be more than 80 per cent of students without the language skills they needed to learn; 10 per cent of these have long-term difficulties needing specialist support.

What was most concerning in the OUP report was the 38 per cent of secondary school teachers who reported that there was just not enough time or teaching support available to teach vocabulary. This is concerning because as one of the contributors to the report points out, the changes to GCSE exams mean that the vocabulary challenges are now even more pronounced. Ensuring that pupils have the language skills they need in secondary school has never been more important.

It was therefore heartening to listen to staff and pupils from Isaac Newton Academy in London talking about the language-centred approach in their school.

The academy was named this year’s secondary school of the year in the annual Shine a Light awards – awards which recognise excellent practice in supporting children and young people’s communication development. They describe how communication is embedded in the school with every student encouraged and supported to develop key skills in speech, language and communication.

It is possible, even in a busy, pressured secondary school – but only if language and communication are recognised as crucial to learning and development. 

Indeed, this was one of the findings of Bercow: Ten Years On, an independent review of provision for children and young people with SLCN in England. Launched in March 2018 and led by I CAN, the children’s communication charity, and the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT), the report draws on the evidence of more than 2,500 people who shared their experiences of support for SLCN.

It comes a decade on from the government-backed review led by John Bercow MP in 2008. At that time the review found high variability of provision across England and limited joint working across health and education (Bercow, 2008).

One question asked during the Bercow: Ten Years On review was about support for older children and young people – and the results are concerning. Only 13 per cent of people responding reported that specialist support was prioritised in secondary school; some specialist services only provided support up to key stage 1; many felt that staff in secondary schools needed training and support to identify and provide for pupils with SLCN.

Thankfully, the review also heard many examples of really effective practice – secondary schools that are really making a difference for students with SLCN. Like Isaac Newton, we heard about schools where teachers use word webs to support students’ learning of difficult, technical vocabulary; use visuals to support their teaching; prioritise time to plan with specialists like speech and language therapists. 

Given the diversity in educational provision that has erupted over the last few years, it could perhaps be expected that one of the main findings was huge variation in support for SLCN across England.

Bercow: Ten Years On describes a postcode lottery – what support students get depends on where they live, and often on what school they go to. It described an unacceptable situation, called for change and takes a top-down and bottom-up approach.


Integrated, systemic change is needed. Change will only happen if speech, language and communication are embedded in national and local policy. The report’s recommendations include training for Ofsted that has a focus on SLCN, and there are several asks to the Department for Education: a national programme of training for staff working in schools, and a requirement to understand how to support SLCN in the proposed structured early career content framework for NQTs.

Bottom up

The report calls for everyone to take bold first steps. The website accompanying the report hosts suggestions for taking action, and also a wide range of resources to help with this, such as templates, information sheets, guidance, and signposting.


One of the information sheets mentioned above encourages schools to reflect on their own SLCN support using the key features of effective practice that were drawn from the evidence. Take a minute to reflect here on how your school would fare against them.

Is SLCN mentioned specifically in your SEN information report?

Given that most students with SEND have SLCN, this is a key recommendation of the review (suggested wording that can be lifted and included is provided).

Do you have a lead for speech, language and communication?

This could be a member of the leadership team leading the development of oracy across the curriculum, the school SENCO coordinating training in SLCN, or a higher level teaching assistant as communication lead for the school. The important thing is that someone or, even better, a team of people focus on the issue of SLCN.

Does speech, language and communication run through other related policies?

In the best examples, schools reported that language was embedded in literacy, behaviour and wellbeing approaches rather than something that was just ticked off on a list.

Is there a rolling programme of training for staff in SLCN?

There was agreement across people who submitted evidence that one-off training sessions were not effective. Training needed to be part of school’s INSET programme, with a focus on building skill and expertise through modelling, coaching, learning walks, observations, etc

Do all staff know how to identify and support students with SLCN?

In secondary schools this can be difficult to achieve, but we provide a basic three steps to identification which have proved doable even in the busiest schools.

Are there ways that students can tell you the kind of support they feel makes a difference?

As part of the review, young people told us about the support they received for SLCN, reporting what did and did not help. The resources used to do this are now available for all schools to use.

Do you work with your local speech and language therapy team?

In the best examples, speech and language therapists were seen as a member of the school team rather than a visiting professional. Through this, staff developed their knowledge and expertise, parents, understood more clearly that good therapy provision is not all about individual sessions, and therapists had a better understanding of the “bigger picture” for students.

Do you know the impact of SLCN interventions?

The review found that only 15 per cent of survey respondents collected and shared evidence of outcomes. In the most effective schools, this was part of the culture with some schools reporting impact after using Pupil Premium funding for interventions. Worcestershire schools have a website where schools can share their effective practice, for example.

Can we track progress in spoken language?

It was encouraging to hear from schools that were using available resources such as the Communication Trust’s progression tools or posters of language development to do this.

Do you work with parents to ensure that there is continuity of approach for students’ communication?

More than 600 parents submitted evidence to the review. They felt the most impactful practice was where teachers listened to their goals, asked questions, suggested training and problem-shared the issues which arose.

Is there support for students’ SLCN at the three key levels?

The review showed great variability between schools. There is now commissioning guidance available so schools can plan their whole-school approaches, targeted support for some students, and more specialist interventions for those with more complex SLCN.

What next?

The aim is that there is something for everyone to do. If, when answering the questions above, you felt there was more to find out, visit the 10 Years On website (see below) to read the report and look at the resources so that you can have conversations in your school, but also with your local authority, trust or confederation.

You can also sign the petition to get a debate about children’s SLCN in Parliament. Join I CAN and RCSLT in making a commitment to make change happen – put children’s SLCN high on the agenda and make a difference not just to young people with SLCN, but to all students in your school.

Mary Hartshorne is head of evidence for I CAN, a national children’s communication charity. She is a specialist speech and language therapist with experience of working in education. She is also is leading Bercow: Ten Years On – the national review of provision for children and young people with SLCN, which was published March 2018.

Read more from her and SecEd at