Friday, 18 September 2009

Coming out of the SEN ghetto

Many readers of this blog may have seen the recent article on The Communication Trust that appeared in Third Sector magazine, please click here to view article.

Friends have responded with varying degrees of amusement and astonishment at my admission in the article that sometimes charities don’t play together nicely. Interestingly as many have commented on the description of the Trust as a disability coalition – those who know our work have long stopped seeing us in this way.

It is true that many members of the Trust represent particular disability groups. Many more have SEN and disability as a core part of their work. But significant numbers of the Trust’s members are running programmes that support speech, language and communication for all children.

Moreover much of the Trust’s funding is invested in universal services. The Communication Trust is developing and delivering programmes of work that exist to support all children and these services are delivered through mainstream schools, pre-school provision and services such as health visiting.

Why would organisations with the interests of children with special educational needs or impairments be interested in developing services for all children? This question is of particular interest for me as I today reviewed the interesting Manifesto for Literacy released by the National Literacy Trust (please click here to view the manifesto). The NLT are to be applauded for their excellent work, and their call for the government’s Better Communication Action Plan to be implemented in full reflects the Communication Trust position. The Manifesto particularly supports the universal aspects of the plan – most notably:
· Speech, language and communication to be prioritised by all Children’s Centres and health visitors, as the primary focus for measuring every child’s progress
· All parents to receive information which emphasises the importance of speech, language and communication to all children through the Healthy Child Programme

But that the NLT manifesto then goes on to express concern that Action Plan will revert to an Special Educational Needs (SEN) agenda at the cost of this wider universal programme is intriguing. Implicit in this concern is that the agenda of disability organisations is somehow very different to the concerns of other children’s organisations. In the field of speech and language I see this false divide starting to crumble.
For The Communication Trust the SEN agenda includes the development of universal services that better promote and support speech, language and communication skills for the entire generation of children and young people that are growing up in this age of communication. The aspects of the Action Plan highlighted above were proposed by impairment based organisations – many of who already provide such information to parents and children’s centres. Why would disability/SEN groups pursue this universal services agenda?

Firstly the majority of children and young people with speech, language and communication needs will be in mainstream pre –school and education settings. Many won’t be statemented and lots won’t even be on supporting programmes such as school action. A focus on creating excellent universal services that are communication supportive and that have staff able to identify and support typical communication development will better help include those children who find speech, language and communication difficult. It is not good enough to have all children services that really are ‘all children except children with SEN’.

Secondly we are conscious of research that says that significant numbers of children enter primary school with language skills behind their age. This research is reflected back to us by heads and teachers – some identifying 50% and upwards of their class having some language delay with clear links between communication difficulties and social exclusion. Building better universal services with stronger speech, language and communication components will help these children to achieve and attain. Building on this strong universal foundation with targeted programmes, such as the ‘A Chance to Talk’ ( initiative that The Communication Trust is supporting, will help these children catch up. Supporting these children is a social justice issue and the quest for social justice is a principle at the centre of being for most disability groups. The extension of this principle to children who are disadvantaged by circumstances other than impairment is not such a stretch. Pragmatically, there is much overlap between approaches to helping children with moderate language impairment and those with language delay and resource planning for one group must take into account the needs of the other.

Lastly The Communication Trust wants all children to have the very best communication skills possible. When did you last see a job advert that did not need effective communication skills? Barely a week goes by without the CBI or a major employer bemoaning lack of communication skills in graduates and school leavers. Speech and language underpins attainment in literacy and numeracy but also is the key facet of conflict resolution, problem solving, self awareness, social and emotional well being and in the development of character and self. Many of the approaches that support children with significant challenges with speech, language and communication can be adapted and transferred to support all children. Vocabulary building techniques; social communication exercises; listening games; visual cues; the use of signs -these SEN developed programmes all have resonance for children whatever their starting point or ability.

So yes – the Trust has a large number of disability charities and does of course look at how best to ensure that those who need additional support get the targeted and specialist help that they need. This is a vital part of the SEN agenda. But excellent personalised specialised support must be underpinned by excellent and inclusive universal provision. In recognising and promoting the fact speech, language and children is an all children issue the Communication Trust has developed a programme of work that is ground breaking in breaking down the false walls between SEN/disability services and universal provision.

As the voluntary sector representation on the group taking forward the Better Communication Action Plan The Communication Trust has long advocated that the Plan must, in both its principles and its practice, be about speech, language and communication for all children. We will continue to do so and will add the NLT manifesto to the wealth of evidence from our members and partners to support this position.

So yes, The Communication Trust is a disability coalition. Proud to be so. We are also an all children organisation that believes that all really must mean all – Better Communication matters for every child.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Collaboration, coalition and competition

I have been looking at entering The Communication Trust into the latest spate of third sector competitions under the ‘partnership’ award categories. The Communication Trust is a coalition organisation – a group of not-for-profit organisations that have decided to collaborate in pursuit of a common cause – and partnership runs through everything that we do.

When talking to friends about my job those outside the sector I take it for granted that such joint working is the norm - after all charities, (from the Latin Caritas meaning love), are all sweetness do-gooding altruistic bodies. However, friends who have spent their life working in charities tend to suck through their teeth and ask how I cope with the other “c” word – competition.

That charities compete is the non spoken truth of the voluntary sector. Like corporates we compete for money, for PR, for profile and even for clients. Unlike much of the private sector many charities are also driven by passion for their cause, their users, and their beliefs – a passion that can fuel aggressive business strategies epitomised in the Chair of a major national charity recently declaring their intent to wipe the competition off the playing field.

Competition is not per se bad. It can spur organisations on to achieve more for their users. But all charities should, from time to time, consider whether they may achieve more by making their competitors their partners (or, and I have rarely met a charity that has admitted this, consider whether one of their competitiors may be better placed then they to pursue their cause).

Two years ago members of The Communication Trust took such a moment for reflection and decided that collaboration was an essential next step in pursuit of their individual missions. While making the decision was the first step the road to a functional coalition is pathed with challenges. Several Trust members represent impairment specific missions; autism, stammering, specific language difficulties, learning difficulties, hearing impairment; others have an interest social exclusion and poverty; still others have a mission to promote particular approaches or interventions and some come with a wider interest in education and employment. Some are small volunteer run bodies – some are £100 million corporations. These differences in size, mission, style and philosophies compound the challenges faced by competing organisations attempting to collaborate in a market place where funding is ever tighter.

And yet the Trust has succeeded. There are over 30 members of the coalition and the numbers are growing. How has this happened?

In truth taking the first step to decide to collaborate was key. Many Trust members had not had good working relationships and it took courage from these CEOs to reach out – this bold leadership from the CEOs of I CAN, Afasic and other early members of the Trust set a positive model.

The next step was agreeing a common enemy. As many of 10% of children have significant speech, language and communication needs, linked to range of different impairments; in some parts of the country 40-50% of children are entering schools with poor language skills, often linked to social disadvantage; still others do not have the skills for employment and further education. Tackling this time bomb became a common purpose for Trust members and that action was needed fast provided the imperative for shared action.

However even with this common purpose joint working is in practice difficult. Sometimes very difficult. With early support from VCS Engage, the Trust explored models of working and based on early experience I created a guide to good practice in coalition which appears alongside some really useful advice on coalition working that can be found at Two years on much of this advice remains; starting with something small (we started with developing a leaflet with a shared definition of the problem) be honest, have a strong leader and be informed by evidence and users. I would now add the need to balance sensible process with pragmatic practice – the voluntary sector temptation is to develop complex rules and flow charts for joint working and, while some process is important, the tendency to sit in a room and engage in what a mentor once branded ‘semantical joggerpokery’ about whether a rule should read ‘could’ or ‘will’, must be tempered by some real work.

It is on this last point I am most proud of what the Trust has achieved. We have sensible rules and processes (helped in a large point by adopting a PRINCE 2 approach with an excellent project manager), we work together well (but are never complacent - joint working is a dynamic process), but most of all we have increased the range and quality of services available to children and young people who find communication difficult. As well as our own work we have, through our joint working, pushed and supported the government to take forward a £50 million action plan that will ensure better communication for many children in the years to come. Competition remains between members and between causes but this is tempered by another driver – ambition. We have achieved much with and for children but we are ambitious to achieve so much more and together we will.