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How To Improve Your School’s Speech Language and Communication Needs Provision

Marie Gascoigne and Victoria Riley-Hill show how a wish to improve your SLCN provision can be turned into pupil-focused practice that delivers life-changing results…

  • How To Improve Your School’s Speech Language and Communication Needs Provision

Improving the speech, language and communication of every child in your school will improve their life chances, raise attainment, lead to better behaviour and contribute to positive inspection outcomes.

Those might seem to be ambitious claims, but we’ve seen the evidence for ourselves and presented it in a report for the Communication Trust.

Children with poor oral language skills at school entry have a significantly higher chance of later struggling with reading and academic attainment. They are also more likely to be excluded, develop social, emotional and mental health problems in later life and find employment more difficult to secure.

SLCN is the most frequently reported SEND category in primary schools, and numbers are rising.

Two children in every classroom are likely to have developmental language disorder, and in areas of disadvantage many more will need additional support to achieve good outcomes.

A whole-school approach and improvement plan that addresses these needs can only have a positive impact.

As a SEND specialist, you can expect to be presented with an ever-growing range of intervention and training packages to commission directly, as well as varying levels of support from external specialists, from speech and language therapists to specialist teachers.

Our own work in helping schools improve their SLCN provision uses the Balanced System accredited scheme for school improvement, which tells us how important it is to have a framework to understand the needs of pupils in your own school, and see how the provision or training you access or commission can add value.

It’s crucial to ensure that scarce resources generate maximum impact.


We start by understanding the current picture of need, skills and provision at a universal, targeted and specialist level. The existing provision and any gaps are identified across family support, environment, workforce, identification and intervention.

Workforce development is at the core of the process, but only part of the story. By ‘workforce’, we mean everyone – governors, senior leadership, teachers, TAs, lunchtime and after school supervisors and even transport staff, where relevant.

Typical reflections from schools at the end of this initial ‘understand phase’ can sometimes resemble the following: “Pupils’ SEN were not identified accurately, and their needs were not being met. Some pupils considered to have behaviour difficulties actually had SLCN.”

Schools will often notice that where support is in place, the quality can vary and impact upon progress. This variation will frequently be related to the confidence of a staff member, or other demands placed on staff that limit their ability to deliver interventions as they have been trained to do.

In around 90% of schools, ‘family support’ for SLCN has emerged as a key area for development. This surprises many, but small changes in how parents and carers are given access to information and support can have a big impact when it comes to pupils’ level of engagement and access to learning when in school.

Understanding the full range of existing provision and gaps will provide schools with a clear accountability framework. Provisions have to be linked to delivering outcomes, and outcomes require a whole system approach.

The purpose of this ‘Understand’ phase analysis is to address schools’ need to both target the support and training they commission, and to hold their providers to account.

Plan and do

With the baseline established, the next ‘Plan and Do’ phase uses the school’s own analysis to establish a number of projects that will be outcome-focused.

One example might be, “Staff will have the skills and competences to deliver a rolling programme of targeted interventions.”

This project will have been generated with the aid of the school’s audit, be linked to senior leadership priorities to create a bespoke action plan and ideally referenced in the school development plan.

Note that this is not a plan for the SENCo to deliver by themselves!

Review – so what?

Once those plans are implemented, we turn to gathering evidence of outcome and impact. This goes beyond showing what happened, who benefited and how good the provision was to a more demanding form of impact evidence – the ‘So what?’

This ‘So what?’ question is challenging, but essential. It’s about more than simply believing that something works; it’s about being able to show how it’s making a difference in your school for your pupils, as illustrated by the following examples:

  • So what has changed at home for children where parents have had some support?
  • So what learning are pupils able to access in class as a result of changes to the environment?
  • So what has changed about how staff who have had training are interacting with pupils?

Schools tell us that they value this evidence framework because it enables them to demonstrate the effectiveness of SLCN provision and subsequent pupil progress.

The review phase goes on to compare baseline self-rating and audit with a review of process and practice using a ‘theory of change’ approach. These reflections are then used to inform further strategic planning.

The school is provided with an outline of what ‘good’ looks like, based on their own need and a provisional plan to maintain, develop and monitor – in this way, the improvement cycle can continue.

Those who wish to can have the opportunity to gain an external accreditation for their work in supporting SLCN.

Schools that have completed the cycle using the Balanced System with mentor support have reported increased engagement with families around support for SLCN and being able to devise a workforce development strategy that includes training for all, as well as willingness among some staff to take on communication champion roles within the school.

They also report seeing better use of external specialist support, in a way that adds value to the expertise of school staff, being able to measure outcomes for individuals and pupil groups engaged in specific interventions, increased confidence among school support teams and less pressure to seek EHCPs for some pupils.

Ultimately, we’ve seen how schools can be successfully challenged to become more ambitious, motivated and focused on raising the profile of SLCN. As one SENCo once tells us “There’s much more of a shared ethos and clarity about what we all do across the school and throughout the day to support SLCN.”

Five strands

Ensuring that a school can meet its SLCN need requires more than just staff training and intervention packages.

To have the greatest impact, schools need to support the whole system. Our own Scheme for Schools uses the Balanced System’s Five Strands, under which schools examine outcomes in the following areas:

1. Family support
Helping parents and carers build confidence so they can communicate more effectively at home

2. Environment
Ensuring the whole school and every classroom is a communication friendly, enabling environment for all pupils

3. Workforce
Developing a skilled workforce that is able to support all children’s speech, language and communication (SLC)

4. Identification
A process for identification and monitoring of SLCN

5. Intervention
A range of appropriate interventions is available across the school

Better Communication CIC is a community interest company supporting change for children and young people with SLCN. Marie Gascoigne is the company’s director and Victoria Riley-Hill its school mentor for SLCN.

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