Friday, 24 February 2012

The Toddler Testing Debate - Wendy Lee, Professional Director

There was a piece in The Times earlier in the week describing how a test done in the US with toddlers could predict problems in literacy. As a speech and language therapist, my reaction is – well of course it does!

In my gut I know this to be true, though we also have research evidence of the importance of vocabulary and of language levels in young children being predictors of how children manage at school.

But we do get very worried when we hear the word ‘testing’ and ‘toddlers’ in the same sentence - and understandably so. Recently we saw headlines expressing concerns about the testing of toddlers as part of the new Early Years Foundation Stage and Healthy Child Programme.

I guess we imagine the worst, rows of babies and toddlers being put through their paces to spot those who don’t quite make the grade. No one wants that.

I would be the first to argue against ‘hot housing’ children, taking away their childhood, not allowing them to play, have fun and be individuals and pushing them into formal teaching but this is not about testing in that way.

This is about knowing that language and communication is important to us all! As parents, we want our children to be good at talking. We value communication.

As professionals, we know communication is more than just talking. It is the vehicle for learning, it is the flip side of reading and writing, it is necessary to regulate our behavior, to organise our thinking, to build relationships and to work and live with others.

I’ve worked as a speech and language therapist for more years than I would care to admit. I have met every kind of teacher, parent and professional – those who are desperately worried that their child cannot say ‘r’ at age 4 (this is fine) and those who are OK with the fact their child can’t put 3 words together at 4 (this is not fine – and no, he won’t just catch up, though many will quote exceptions to the rule – Einstein for example).

I have also seen what happens when children with poor language are not picked up early. Some children with potential to catch up don’t, others who have long term language needs end up misunderstood or misdiagnosed. I have shared frustration with parents and colleagues, working with older children seen as ‘low ability’ with poor reading, poor behavior, no confidence… knowing had they been picked up at age two or three, life would look and feel very different.

Surely, we want to avoid this scenario. We can ‘test’ children when they are young; it can be fun, it just looks like playing – or at least that is how children and many parents see it!

We can pick out those children who, with support at the right time, can catch up. We can also pick up those with longer term needs who can be understood by adults that work with them, so they can be supported to learn and progress in the best way to suit their needs.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The bigger fight - Anita Kerwin-Nye, Director

We spend our days raising the profile of speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). We work on solutions to ensure earlier identification and we battle for more support for children who struggle. We win some (quite a lot); we lose some (too many) and we continue to fight the good fight.

But this morning it occurred that there is a bigger fight at hand. As unemployment figures rise, as young people are demonised in the media as illiterate yobs and as the language of government moves towards “ the disabled and the tax payers” as if they were two polarised groups that never overlap what world are we sending the young people we work with into?

Of course the work that we’re doing means that they enter that world with the best possible chance and the best possible skills and, of course, many young people who struggle to communicate will end up in wonderful jobs, pursuing their careers and interests with great outcomes. But we run the risk of a generation adrift – where communication skills matter more than ever and those who struggle have their life chances limited by bad policy, a judgemental media and employers who do not see the talent that they are missing out on.

It’s not all doom and gloom – employers like the wonderful Co-Op in Nottinghamshire, winner of our Employer Shine a Light Award are doing wonderful work providing meaningful opportunities for young people with SLCN. Charities like SCOPE and MENCAP do great work in modelling best inclusive working practices.

However, they are working against the tide. When Ministers suggest that the disabled should be forced into unpaid work, and the front pages of the papers are full of stories of the grunting youth, we have our work cut out.

But do we collude? Of course services should be efficient but when we make the case that a service should continue because it provides an economic benefit downstream; when we tell employers that they should care about those with disabilities or SEN because they represent a significant part of their market; when we don’t collectively react with rage when parents have to pay for half their child’s AAC because while admitting the need the local authority says it’s just not got the budget, are we colluding with the underlying message that money, and from this an individual’s economic worth, is all that matters? Of course we can deploy these messages to good effect – and they are not wrong - but maybe we need to apply some balance.

To have the services that you need for your health and education; to have the best possible chance of employment and a decent living wage; to be supported if you cannot work; to be valued as an individual and included within society – these are things are not privileges if there is enough cash. These are rights. That’s the bigger fight.