Fears raised over closure of specialist speech and language hubs for children
PUBLISHED: 05:30 12 April 2019 | UPDATED: 11:09 30 April 2019
A shake-up of specialist speech and language services for children - which could see three centres closed - aims to support more of the 2,300 youngsters in need of help, education chiefs claim.
A consultation urging parents to have their say on services for children with speech, language and communication needs, as part of a planned revamp of services, has been launched by Suffolk County Council.
Education leaders claim the new plan will provide more outreach services, enable all schools to spot the signs of communication needs in a child earlier, and keep youngsters around their friends and family, who are a vital support mechanism.
But with stretched budgets, the council is proposing to axe the three existing speech and language units in Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft.
Judith Mobbs, assistant director for special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and skills, said demand for speech and language support had increased by 21% in the last three years, and had around 2,300 youngsters needing support.
“Early intervention of speech and language needs is so critical,” she said.
“If a family has to wait for months and months to get the support that's really detrimental to the child because all that time they are falling behind in their learning.
“We had a system with long waiting lists at three speech and language units that could meet the needs of only 45 children a year.
“The new model seeks to provide better services for children and for longer.”
The revamped system would provide more outreach therapists who could support teachers in mainstream schools, and reach a further field of youngsters.
Plans to create new special educational units to mainstream schools will also cater for those children, Mrs Mobbs said.
The clinical commissioning groups have committed an extra £1million over the next two years to recruit more speech therapists and fund the training of school staff to spot the signs early.
But parents have questioned how effective provision can be provided in units catering for all kinds of needs – including autism and mental health issues.
Kate Dinnes, 37, whose seven-year-old son Xavien uses the Rushmere centre, said: “We definitely support the increased outreach but it shouldn't be one or the other.
“They are so valuable to the families that have used them, and we don't want to lose that.
“Having worked as a volunteer at the units and seeing the progress Xavien has made is amazing.
“He really struggled because he couldn't communicate and the tantrums he had because of the frustration – it's been life-changing.”
The consultation closes on April 22, after which the results will be analysed and final proposals put to the council's cabinet, likely to be in June of July.
A period of time will then be allowed for the phase in of the new provision to make sure that no child loses support, with the aim of new Key Stage 1 units being open sometime in 2020.
Reaction: Gordon Jones
Councillor Gordon Jones, Conservative cabinet member for children's services, education and skills, said: “I welcome the considerable additional investment that colleagues in the clinical commissioning groups have committed to over the next two years for additional therapy, and the investment in training and resources for those who already work with children so that they can provide support to children and families at the earliest opportunity.
“I would encourage people to take part in the consultation and have their say on Suffolk's proposal of an integrated speech, language and communications model.”
Reaction: Jack Abbott
Labour education spokesman Jack Abbott said: “There are some proposals in this consultation that are welcome, not least the commitment to extending the outreach offer.
“However, I could not support any plan which included the loss of these units – it simply should not be an either-or choice and it could severely impact on the children who desperately need them.
“The communication around the consultation has been so poor that I'm not surprised some people are questioning its legitimacy. Trust in Suffolk County Council is at rock bottom so it's really disappointing they haven't felt the need to engage with families properly.”
Reaction: Suffolk Parent Carer Network
Anne Humphrys, co-chair of Suffolk Parent Carer Network (SPCN), said: “Families have told us about the postcode lottery depending which part of Suffolk you live in and services not working together effectively so they bounce around the system.
“Many have also told us that their children and young people are not receiving the SLCN [speech, language and communication needs] provision in their education, health and care plans [EHCPs].
“We know there are not enough speech and language therapists in Suffolk to meet the provision in EHCPs and that there are many other children and young people without EHCPs who are currently unable to access SLCN services.
“We have been a partner in the redesign of these services from the beginning and have used the feedback from families throughout this work.
“The provision of funded Wellcom, Speech Link and Language Link packs, as well as the training to use them, is being provided to all schools in Suffolk as part of the new pathway.
“This will ensure that schools will have the resources for the early identification of potential SLCN needs and will also provide tools for them and families to support their children and young people.
“This is not instead of specialist SLCN therapy but is an early intervention offer.
“Significant additional investment into the new pathway means services will be more consistent across Suffolk, there will be an increase in the number of speech and language therapists and the development of an extended specialist outreach service which will mean that more children and young people will have access to the services when they need them.
“The potential closure of the speech and language units [SLUs] has been considered carefully as part of this work and SPCN has consistently raised the fact that there will be children and young people whose needs require more intensive specialist support beyond the new extended specialist outreach service.
“We have received assurances that those children and young people will be able to access the specialist education provision, including small units, as part of the anticipated investment of up to £46m by Suffolk County Council into specialist education placements.
“SPCN attended the meetings run for parents and carers at each of the SLUs as well as the open sessions for people to feedback on the draft pathway and subsequent changes were made to the model following this.
“SPCN feel that the new pathway will improve the access to and quality of SLCN services and we want to ensure that the speech. language and communication needs of all children and young people in Suffolk are met.”