By | January 30, 2018

With the news in recent days of the potential closure of The Communication Trust (TCT) – a consortium that I led the set up of in 2007 – I have been reflecting on both the challenges and successes of the Trust over the last 10 years.

Institutional and sector memory is important. It is easy to think that the normal now was the forever normal. The outpouring of support from schools, parents and speech and language therapists on the quality, reach and impact of The Communication Trust’s work has been heartening.

But this collaboration or single point of championing the importance of speech, language and communication was not ever thus, The Trust’s work started with a small grant from the VCS Engage programme and the resulting report encouraged the then DCSF SEN Team to fund the Trust’s further work.

And many of the benefits predicted in the report were reaped. From the Hello Campaign to the developing of assessment and training resources that I see in nearly every school I go into. From giving smaller organisations a chance to share their expertise, to valuing the essential role of the Speech and Language Therapist and their work in skilling the wider workforce. It is an example of collaboration breeding success that has now become part of the mainstream.

To lose this would be to lose something we need to see more of not less – collaboration based around the needs of service users. Development of consortia has been simultaneously the hardest and most rewarding part of my career. In a culture beset by market forces we should be celebrating those who model that successful outcomes don’t have to be based on arrogance or ruthless competition.

I cannot talk to the current funding challenges of the Trust but from my own time as Director I know that the model of speech, language and communication (SLC) adopted by the Trust often caused difficulties in securing statutory funding.

The model is focused around need, rather than impairment or cause of difficulty, and presents the solution as whole school or whole system approach rather than fragmented provision. It recognises that building speech, language and communication for all is good for every child but also particularly benefits those that struggled – whether their difficulty is their primary impairment e.g. developmental language disorder, part of another condition e.g. cerebral palsy or affected by environmental factors e.g. language delay. It recognises the value and role of the specialist; both in working with children with more complex needs but also in skilling the wider workforce. It is in many ways the traditional public health model – a focus on prevention and ‘good healthy diet’ for everyone with increasing levels of support for those who need it more.

It was and remains the right model. BUT. The system doesn’t commission holistic solutions. It commissions in a fragmented way. And often that which deals with commissioning for ‘universal’ services ignores SEND – a point explored by Driver Youth Trust in their Through the Looking Glass report where it is clear that ‘literacy services’ often ignore the needs of learners with dyslexia.

Similarly services around SEND, and within this SLCN, are often commissioned around very specific SEND issues – rather than also considering the factors that influence on outcomes for learners with SEND.  This is why Whole School SEND started programmes to combine work around embedding the SEND reforms in schools with the wider agendas of school improvement, school led approaches and the rise of academies. Arguably these latter points – combined with school funding cuts and the ‘exclusion explosion’ that people link to the accountability framework – have as great an impact on learners with SEND as the SEND reforms.

Budgets in schools, in LAs and in central government are structured to meet specific needs and target groups or outcomes – speech, language and communication cuts across all of these. What should be strength in underpinning everything becomes a weakness as it is too often in the background.

And that may be the real challenge.

Speech, language and communication are essential for all but in terms of literacy funding they remain the poor relation to reading and writing (although the work of Voice 21, the Oracy Network and the potential funding in the Social Mobility Paper are welcome additions to the debate and resource).

Across the piece, it remains the case that there is not one central point of funding for the kind of work that The Communication Trust does. Speech, language and communication skills are – in funding terms – the Jill of all trades and mistress of none. Funding for the last 10 years has come almost in the whole from the central government SEND budgets. This has been welcome and well used.

But where are the other funding streams that could support speech, language and communication – say to the same degree we see in support for reading and writing? Where are the funding pots that support holistic provision – truly universal and including SEND?

It was pleasing to see the Hasting Opportunity Area plan recognise that driving literacy for all meant proactively including learners with SEND:

A Hastings town-wide literacy campaign: We will galvanise the community sprit to get Hastings reading. We will provide up to £250,000 of funding to an organisation with expertise and experience in improving literacy to work with parents and carers, schools and settings, community champions, voluntary organisations and local businesses. The aim will be to get children and young people of all ages reading more every day – particularly the most disengaged – to improve literacy skills and reading comprehension. The campaign will use evidence based approaches and consider in particular the needs of children and young people with special educational needs and/or disabilities. Through the campaign we will also support families and parents with low levels of adult literacy.

We need to see similar for speech, language and communication. Both as a priority area for funding but also with a focus on both universal/and target support; not either/or.

10 years on The Communication Trust has done amazing work. The challenge now is how we make sure that children continue to benefit from its work for the next 10.