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Lost for Words: Lost for Life

Conference highlights persistent gaps in services for young people with speech, language and communication difficulties.
by Hollie Jenkins

Delegates attending a conference last week, expressed their concern at persistent gaps in services for teenagers and young people with speech, language and communication difficulties and stressed that the proposed NHS reforms could exacerbate the situation.

big_thumbnail400 delegates from across the country and overseas met at City University London for the three-day Lost for Words: Lost for Life conference, which was timed to coincide with the National Year of Communication. The event was arranged and hosted by City University London in conjunction with UK charities, I CAN and Afasic, and was opened by the Rt Hon John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons.

The conference was unique in bringing together teachers, teaching support staff, speech and language therapists, psychologists, academic researchers, youth workers and Primary Care Trust managers and Commissioners. It also featured talks from young people who have used speech and language services and their families.

Dr. Victoria Joffe, Reader in Developmental Speech, Language and Communication Difficulties, City University London, said that despite the 2008 Bercow review highlighting the gap in speech and language services for secondary aged students, delegates were united in their concern about a continued lack of facilities for this group, as well as for young people with speech, language and communication difficulties in further education and into adulthood.

"While some improvements have been made and awareness has been raised in some areas, the reality is that particularly for secondary aged students there are still big inconsistencies in terms of local speech and language resources. It really is a postcode lottery with no uniformity across areas and in most cases significant gaps in services.

"Furthermore, there are also virtually no services available for young adults after they have left school.

"Research suggests that speech and language problems in secondary school aged children and young adults are more likely to be complex and are associated with other difficulties including memory, attention, behaviour and social and emotional functioning.

"There is also clear evidence that without the right services, young people who don't have the right access to speech and language services are vulnerable to being left behind and disadvantaged in life, so this is clearly a big issue."

"Research shows that students in secondary schools, who have not been picked up previously in primary school, are showing significant speech, language and communication difficulties which impact on educational attainment and general well being. These students need to be identified as quickly and early as possible in secondary school and a range of appropriate and effective support structures need to be put in place."

Delegates and speakers also expressed their concern that the proposed NHS reforms could worsen the situation, particularly if it results in the further fragmentation of health, education and social services.

"Inconsistency in commissioning, local austerity measures, coupled with the probability that the proposed NHS reforms may result in less integration between health, education and welfare services, means that we are facing a situation where things could get even worse," said Dr Joffe.

Mary Hartshorne, Head of Quality and Outcomes at I CAN, said that the event highlighted the need to move beyond merely identifying the service gaps.

"Raising awareness of the issues of language and communication in young people at secondary school is not enough. We have to also ensure that there is support in place to ensure these needs are met. Delegates at the conference indicated that more training and support is needed in secondary schools; schools need to have access to programmes and interventions that work for this group. Presenters shared some good examples of the positive impact of this in schools.

"We have come a long way since the last major survey of services to support young people with speech, language and communication needs in 2000. But it is important not to lose this momentum. We know that the relationship between language, literacy skills and learning continues to be important during the secondary years, so a continued focus on supporting young people's language skills in secondary school is very important, despite increasing pressure on local services."

Linda Lascelles, Afasic Chief Executive, said: "For young people with communication needs, secondary school can be a difficult place. The conference was an opportunity to hear from young people with communication difficulties directly. Young people can have very different perspectives than their teachers or parents on what it is like to be at school and what support they need. Therefore it is imperative that we listen to them. This conference helped to raise these young people's concerns with a range of practitioners, who will take their messages back to local schools and service providers."

The three day conference included a host of keynote talks, symposiums, presentations, workshops and posters which address issues around speech, language and communication, educational attainment, social and emotional functioning, employment and well-being of older children and young people with speech, language and communication needs.

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