The number of five and six-year-olds who need speech and language support at school has risen by 10% in England over the past year, BBC analysis shows. Experts say that the increase, which is substantially greater than in previous years, is partly due to the lockdown limiting social interactions.
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The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists says the profession struggles to cope with the demand.
The government says it is investing £180m in the early years of development.
The BBC’s Shared Data Unit’s analysis found that the number of children in Year 1 who were identified as needing support rose from 3,950 in 2019-20 to 4,390 in 2020-21. This represents an increase of 440 children or 10.9%.
The data also shows that the number of children in Year 2 who were identified as needing support rose from 1,710 in 2019-20 to 1,890 in 2020-21. This represents an increase of 180 children or 10.6%.
This is the first time data on speech and language support needs has been collected for two consecutive years. The figures come from a new government survey of schools, which asked them to report on the number of children in their reception and Year 1 classes who had been identified as needing support for their speech, language and communication skills.
The data shows that the number of children needing support has risen sharply since the pandemic’s start. In 2019-20, before the pandemic, the number of children in Year 1 needing support was 3,950, or 9.4%. In 2020-21, this had risen to 4,390, or 10.9%. For Year 2 children, the figure rose from 1,710 (10%) in 2019-20 to 1,890 (10.6%) in 2020-21.
The increase is likely due to the lockdown’s impact on children’s social interactions and their development of speech and language skills. Lockdown has meant that many children have had less opportunity to interact with other children and adults outside their immediate family, which can impact their development.
The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT) says the profession struggles to cope with the demand. In a survey of its members, the RCSLT found that three-quarters (76%) said they could not meet the demand for speech and language therapy services.
The government invests £180m in early development, including speech and language support. A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “We know the pandemic has had an impact on children’s learning and development, which is why we are investing over £1 billion to support schools to reopen safely and effectively, including £280 million specifically for catch-up programmes.”
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