Tuesday, 31 August 2010

‘Three strikes and you’re executed’ - Dave Mahon, Programme Manager

A suggestion I read on the Treasury’s website inviting the public to make suggestions on spending cuts. The entry suggested that with a conviction for a third offence the person could be taken round the back of the court and justice dispensed. While this would undoubtedly save the state money the idea of executing three time shoplifters doesn’t sit particularly well with me. I think I would prefer to see the state save money by looking at the variety of factors that can contribute to offending and this includes issues around speech, language and communication needs.

The Trust’s youth justice programme is now entering a new phase as training will be delivered to frontline staff at YOTs across the country. The training helps staff to understand how communication needs can manifest themselves and how simple strategies can produce better outcomes for everyone.

This is not to say that if you understand the communication needs of young people youth crime will be eliminated, there are many, many different reasons why people offend. However, the number of young people in the youth justice system with communication needs is disproportionate to the general population so there is clearly an issue here to address.

An important part of all of our work is in the evaluation, about showing how the work we do is having a positive effect on the people it is aimed at, the youth justice workforce and ultimately the young people in their care in this case. We need to show more clearly the scale of the issue and identify gaps in service provision. We need to look at how young people are supported, how the training helps to change working practices and how it might affect YOT completion rates, attendance rates and breach of order rates.

As I mentioned, the communication needs of young people in the youth justice system are part of the broader issue but in the longer term we would hope that these needs are better recognised and that this recognition can have a positive effect on the lives of these young people.

For my money I would much rather see the state investing in prevention and helping young people to better understand the system they can find themselves a part of. Ignoring the needs of young offenders is unlikely to do anything in diverting them away from crime. As a society I hope we recognise that young offenders are not all ‘hooded wrong uns’ but young people that in many cases require support that may have been absent for most of their lives.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Awareness raising bad. Very bad. - Anita Kerwin-Nye, The Communication Trust

Well, at least according to government. Many Trust members in receipt of Children and Young People’s Grant funding have received letters restricting any spend on communications, awareness and marketing activity, even if that was the point of the original grant. This is in line with wider government activity restricting communications spending and outlined guidance from the Treasury released weeks after the election, (please e-mail enquiries@thecommunicationtrust.org.uk to request a copy).

Of course there was a need to reign in communications spending – all governments spend an inordinate amount on untested and unevidenced marketing and campaigns and it genuinely pleasing to see the government restricting itself in this field (especially as recent experience showed how some government communications consultants daily fees are the equivalent of a consultant SLT for a week!)

But the guidance to voluntary organisations is a bit irritating and somewhat patronising. To say that we need ‘to make the most of very £1’ and to ‘prioritise funding to frontline staff’ is like teaching your grandmother to suck eggs (never really understood that phrase – can an expert in idiom and allegory please explain it to me!)

Many third sector bodies running communications activity also run frontline services. We know the reality that money spent on marketing and awareness raising is one less SLT or specialist teacher so we do not do it lightly.

So why do it at all?

First and foremost to get information to parents, children and young people and those that work with them. The single biggest complaint during the Bercow Review of speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) was that parents did not have the information that they needed when they needed it. This both delayed the help that they got – in a field where early intervention is crucial – and increased their sense of isolation. This was particularly true for parents of children with specific language impairment where the lack of awareness of the condition was heartbreaking as doctors told parents their 4 year old son with no speech would ‘grow out of it’.

Studies consistently show that voluntary sector organisations are often the first port of call for parents (or the first positive source of information) and Talking Point (the speech and language information services that will be the Powerhouse behind the national year) already gets 20,000 hits a year. Member helpline services get thousands of calls a year from desperate families and the marketing of member frontline services is really just another way of ensuring that families can learn about the help that is available from both voluntary and public sector.

The information includes how to better access local provision and how many Trust members provide services that help parents and families better understand what is available to them and how to make their way through the maze of services.

Secondly in an era when government is rightly focusing on the local national voluntary organisations in particular can help local staff share their good practice and learn more about what others are doing. This sharing of what works helps save money – reducing the need for the wheel to be invented again and again. A recent Trust workshop between teachers and SLTs left participants with improved skills and a range of additional techniques that they did not have to invent themselves.

Both the Trust and our members constantly review both the need for communications and awareness raising. We analyse the best ways to get to parents and balance on line and print materials with support for frontline staff who work directly with hard to reach families. We balance well placed national media articles with local services that put experts directly in contact with families at shopping centres, children’s centres and schools. We can track how our awareness raising has started to improve earlier access to services and reduced the isolation of families but we are never complacent. We know the value we need to squeeze from the £1.

Lastly communications activity allows the Trust and our members to keep families and those that work with them up to date on government policy. As Cameron sets out the call for real people to inform government policy and to take forward ‘big society’ with personal responsibility this is surely an essential part of our work. The Trust’s networks reach nearly all of the million families of children with SLCN and communications activity gives them a voice to responds to policy changes and funding decisions that affect them. They can and will tell the government when they have got it right and they will be a powerful voice when they think the government has got it wrong. Now what government would not want to fund that?

Monday, 9 August 2010

Keeping an eye on recent developments - Anita Kerwin-Nye, Director

So I am a rubbish blogger. Official. Get too easily distracted by the day job and, over the last few months, been trying to figure out what new government policy means for children’s speech, language and communication.

Close to home strong lobbying has helped secure new government commitment to funding for the Northern Stammering Centre and regional expertise in Augmentative and Alternative Communication. While these vital specialist services run by Trust members are not out of the woods yet this is a good indication that the government recognises the need for such provision.

Likewise, selfishly, the government has confirmed the Trust funding for this year and has expressed sympathy and support for the aims and objectives of the National Year (waiting for the Spending Review to see how much makes the cut for 2011/12 funding).

But what about at a wider level? Strong interventions by the Special Educational Needs Consortium and several Trust members meant that the Academies Bill was passed with some commitments to protect resources for children and young people with SEN and a promise to assess the impact of academies on other schools in the area. Good outcomes but surely a little concerning that only the intervention of the voluntary sector ensured that these areas were even considered?

In our Minister, Sarah Teather MP, we have someone who recognises the importance of supporting children with SEN and disabilities and the specific importance of speech, language and communication (she did after all launch Make Chatter Matter for I CAN and put the 4th ‘r’ into the Lib Dem 4Rs review – we will forgive her for the fact that it stood for articulation as the sentiment was right!) She is launching an SEN Review, with a Green Paper in October, and has already met with the Trust on shaping content and structure.

This is promising news but, the launch of the NHS White Paper the week before we met the Minister shows that, when it wants, the Government can move swiftly on radical change. Yet in the field of SEN we need another review? Let us hope that the review is not an excuse for inaction. Government needs to take the learnings from Bercow, Lamb, Salt et al and must implement the promised actions from these, well evidenced, parent endorsed reports. Any new SEN Review must add value rather than detract from what we already know needs to happen to ensure better outcomes for children and young people with SLCN.

On the subject of reviews – there are many. The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) Review is welcome and provides an opportunity to both increase focus on early years language and look at mechanisms for early screening and assessment. There is much good in the EYFS and this review provides an opportunity for making it stronger (and simpler!). We are delighted that Dame Clare Tickell, CEO of one of the Trust members, is leading this review and that Jean Gross the Communication Champion is part of the advisory team.

Frank Field MP’s Poverty Review and Graham Allen MP’s Early Intervention Review both need a healthy dose of speech, language and communication expertise and the Trust will be inputting evidence of need and suggested approaches into both.
Separately, but needing clear links to all the work outlined above, there are plans for a Youth Justice Green Paper in the Autumn that has the opportunity to move forward how we meet the needs of the vulnerable young men and women in the youth justice system so many of whom have unmet SLCN or wider SEN.

But all these changes and reviews are small change compared to the big areas of mainstream education and the NHS. Both are being radically overhauled. Both are seeing changes in infrastructure, aims, objectives, funding and philosophy. Nobody really knows yet what this is going to look like. But we know for sure that posts are already being cut – stories from frontline staff suggest radical cuts to SLT and other specialists posts. And many of the changes will, if not explicitly then through their knock on effects, impact on the children that have additional needs. Take, for example, the cuts to the Building Schools for the Future programme – who would have benefitted most from schools with better access and acoustics? Central funding for Higher Level Teaching Assistants cut – who were they working with?

It is not that these changes do not bring opportunities – certainly there are some interesting possibilities for alternative and augmentative communication (AAC) within the Health White Paper and the new public health role of local authorities could play well to a recognition that speech, language and communication issues are a major public health issue.

But we need to be watchful – supportive when needed and challenging when appropriate. The world is moving quickly and we need to make sure that the 1 million plus children with speech, language and communication needs do not fall through the gaps.

So – the largest change in public sector provision in 50 years and a hundred reviews – maybe keeping an eye on that is an excuse for being behind with my blogs!

Friday, 6 August 2010

Tech Talk Troubles - Laura Smith, Media and Campaign Manager

All publicity is good publicity, right? This week’s media coverage has got me thinking. Our Communication Champion, Jean Gross, recently suggested that anything can be used as an opportunity to develop children’s communication, even travelling on your summer holidays.

What did we see in the headlines? Technology stunts children’s language development. And that the nanny state is trying to take over. Hmmm

The truth is that it is too simplistic to suggest that any column inches on communication means the issue has ‘arrived’. What it means is that we are on the road and its getting bumpy.

Our issue is one that is misunderstood and taken for granted. But, it is even more than that. The underlying causes of communication difficulties, and how they manifest, give even the speech and language sector headaches articulating. So is it any wonder corners get cut in the media?

Too often we have seen messages meant to empower and support families instead becoming parent blaming and patronising. Should we worry as long as newspapers devote space to the subject?

Yes, we should. Parents aren’t the problem, but they are part of the solution.

They are the solution when they learn more about how to develop communication and spot a problem before it becomes a language delay. They are also the solution when information empowers them to secure the right service for their child with long-term needs.

The key in all of this is getting information that motivates you, not turns you off and makes you feel guilty or bad.

So, what is the solution? Cut out the media ‘middle men’? Getting information directly into the hands of families will help and is something the National Year of Communication is looking at.

However, we won’t give up on media work just because it is hard sometimes. It is in the media that debates are had and where attitudes are formed and expressed.

We will keep going until our issue has fully emerged. We are lucky to have passionate voices in the speech and language sector, such as Jean Gross, and we don’t give up easily.