The government today pledged over £50m to improve communication services for children after accepting the main recommendations from a damning report by Conservative MP John Bercow into current provision.
In a government-commissioned report, also published today, Bercow recommended the creation of a high-level council and a “champion” to help improve children’s speech, language and communication services.
The final report of Bercow’s review, announced last September, said communications services for children, addressing speech and language impairments ranging from stammering to autism and cerebral palsy, had been “hugely neglected”.
He said: “Access to information and services is often poor, the quality of services is mixed, continuity across the age range is lacking, joint working is rare and there is something of a postcode lottery. About all, the priority attached to communication is too low.”
Bercow called for a “communication council” to be established to support implementation of his proposals, including health and education ministers and communications experts. “If you are going to focus on this topic you need to get it discussed at the highest level,” he said.
In addition, he called for a “communication champion” to be appointed to work with speech and language service providers to identify and share best practice. It is understood this could be a children’s services director or voluntary sector leader.
Bercow also urged the government to introduce pathfinder projects for speech, language and communication services to help drive innovation and improve standards. “We need to make this a policy that’s locally implemented and not just Whitehall-spouted,” he said.
The report said the current system was characterised by “high variability and lack of equity in services” and said early intervention and improved joint working were crucial.
It called for primary care trusts and councils to work together to undertake surveillance and monitoring of children and young people to identify needs across the age range, particularly at transition points.
Once needs had been identified, it said a range of information, advice and support should be readily available for families.
Government pledges £52m
Health secretary Alan Johnson and education secretary Ed Balls said they accepted the points raised in Bercow’s recommendations and pledged £12m to implement them. A full implementation plan, addressing the 40 recommendations specifically, will be published in the autumn.
They also pledged £40m to help early years staff support language development and identify those children with particular needs, in response to Bercow’s emphasis on early identification. Children’s minister Beverley Hughes will announce full details on this plan tomorrow.
ADCS: Transfer responsibility from health to local government
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services welcomed the review. But president Maggie Atkinson questioned primary care trusts’ current lead role in providing speech and language therapy.
She said: “In recent years the inadequate provision for speech and language therapy by the health service has resulted in many complaints from parents and requests to local authorities to pay for therapy for individual children.”
Atkinson said ADCS supported councils taking on this role but in the absence of this shift she urged the Department of Health to ensure PCTs “identify appropriate resources to meet their responsibilities”.
Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Scope, welcomed the review but called for the government to focus next on improving communication services for adults.
“Although this is a great result for disabled children and young people, the need of adults with speech language and communication difficulties remains unaddressed.”
Virginia Beardshaw, chief executive of children’s communication charity I CAN and an adviser to the Bercow review, welcomed the fact that it had backed the main goals of its current Make Chatter Campaign.
These include ending the postcode lottery in services, improving joint working between health and education, boosting early identification and intervention, raising public awareness and providing a continuum of services based around families.
She added: “John Bercow’s review is groundbreaking. It moves the neglected issue of speech, language and communication out of the shadows and into the spotlight.”