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.

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