More children starting school in Greater Manchester need speech and language support, data shows

Experts have suggested that these children may have missed out on interaction during the Covid-19 pandemic, while a professional body has expressed concerns about meeting the rising need for services.

Increasing numbers of children starting primary school in Greater Manchester are needing speech and language support, data has shown.

Figures analysed by the BBC Shared Data Unit showed the number of year one pupils requiring assistance with speech, language and communication (SLC) needs has risen across the city-region in 2021-22 compared to the previous year. England as a whole has also seen an increase in speech and language help being required for pupils in their first year of compulsory education, and the rise between 2020-21 and 2021-22 was bigger than in previous years.

Experts have suggested that the pupils currently starting school may have missed out on socialising and interaction during the Covid-19 pandemic with its lockdowns, while a professional body has expressed concern about its ability to meet rising levels of need and says tens of thousands of children across the country are on NHS waiting lists. The Government, meanwhile, has said it is putting £180m into early years development.

What did the data show for Greater Manchester?

The data, which comes from the Department for Education, shows that in all 10 boroughs of Greater Manchester there were more pupils requiring speech and language support in year one, which is for children aged five and six, in 2021-22 than there was in the previous year.

The biggest increase in the city-region was in Wigan, where there was a 35.71% rise from 196 pupils in 2020-21 to 266 in 2021-22. Tameside also saw a significant increase, with year one pupils requiring this support going up by 26.9%, while in Oldham pupils with speech and language needs in year one rose by just over a quarter.

The figures for England as a whole saw a rise of 10% in pupils starting school requiring speech and language help between 2020-21 and 2021-22. This was three times as big as the rises in previous years, the data analysis showed. However, this trend was not clearly discernible among the local authorities in Greater Manchester, with bigger year-on-year rises being recorded pre-pandemic in some boroughs.

What has been said about the data?

The charity Speech and Language UK said around 7.6% of children will face some kind of challenge with their speech and language, and more needs to be done to support them. However, it also said it thinks more children have been affected by Covid-19 and the restrictions that were brought in to combat the pandemic.

The charity’s chief executive Jane Harris said: ”We know that during Covid children did not have the opportunities to talk to other children. And they learn a lot from learning from talking to other children. They also didn’t have the opportunities for new experiences. So if you think about how children learn to speak and learn words, they learn by doing new things.

“They learn from going to a farm and seeing a cow and then they know the word cow. If children do not have those new experiences - which they didn’t during the pandemic - they do not have the opportunity and the reason to learn those new words and learn to talk.”

Ms Harris said the education system is currently focused on English, maths and reading, and there is not enough attention given to speech and language. The charity said children who fall behind in this area are more likely to struggle in school and for their mental health and employment prospects in later life to be affected.

She said: “We really want government and school leaders across the country to wake up to this situation and put in place much more support.”

There are concerns about the amount of support that is available for children needing speech and language therapy. Photo: AdobeStock

 The Royal College of Speech, Language, Therapists (RCSLT) said it was concerned both by the data showing rising need for support and by the ability of the profession at the moment to meet increased demand.

RCSLT chief executive Kamini Gadhok said: “Our members have been telling us anecdotally that they’ve been seeing a huge increase in the number of children referred to them. We’ve been very aware, from the surveys we’ve done, that the pandemic has had an impact, not just because of services being closed or schools not being open, but also because children were not able to interact in a way that they used to. I think the data now backs up that anecdotal feedback.

“We’ve been raising concerns even pre pandemic, because there was a situation within the profession and services were already very, very stretched. We have seen a cut in funding to speech and language services over the years. Children’s communication needs have not been prioritised within government, and we were very concerned about this.

“We still obviously have an issue in that we’ve hit a crisis point with services, where services are not able to meet the level of demand.”

The RCSLT said there is a considerable backlog for speech and language therapy, with more than 74,000 children on the NHS waiting list and private sector professionals unable to meet demand. It said speech and language support is now listed as a shortage profession by the Home Office.

The Greater Manchester councils with the biggest increases in pupils needing support have been contacted for comment.

What has the Government said?

A Government spokesperson said up to £180m of funding over the next three years will support the sector to focus on children’s development in their earliest years and help address existing recruitment and retention challenges. It follows commitments by the government to improve parents’ access to affordable, flexible childcare through ambitious reforms, for which work continues.

Minister for schools and childhood, Kelly Tolhurst, said: “The early years of a child’s life are vital, not only in establishing important developmental skills, but also in building a lifelong love of learning that will help them succeed in adult life.

“I’m really proud of the quality and dedication of our early years workforce. This package of support is a huge investment in their skills and professional development, because raising the status of this important sector is key to its growth.”