Why it matters

Taken from Public Health England’s Best start in speech, language and communication, pages 10 to 12.

The ability to communicate is recognised as the most fundamental life skill for children.  It directly impacts on their ability to learn, to develop friendships and on their future life chances. Babies are born ready to communicate – with language development influenced by both genetic factors and environmental experience. Parents, caregivers and those closest to the child have the most important role in supporting speech, language and communication development and are best placed to provide language rich environments for their children.

Early language development and communication skills are recognised as primary indicators of child wellbeing due to the link between language and other social, emotional and learning outcomes. Language contributes to a child’s ability to manage emotions and communicate feelings; to establish and maintain relationships; to think symbolically and to learn to read and write. Without support, children and young people with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) are at risk of poor outcomes across the life course.

Educational attainment

  • 1 in 4 children who struggled with language at the age of 5 did not reach the expected standard in English at the end of primary school, compared with 1 in 25 children (at the age of 5) who had good language skills
  • 15% of pupils with identified SLCN achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and mathematics at the end of their primary school years compared with 61% of all pupils
  • only 20.3% of pupils with SLCN gained grade 4/C or above in English and maths at GCSE, compared with 63.9% of all pupils

Social, emotional and mental health

  • 81% of children with emotional and behavioural disorders have unidentified SLCN
  • children with vocabulary difficulties at age 5 are 3 times more likely to have mental health problems in adulthood and twice as likely to be unemployed when they reach adulthood

Lifelong impact

  • 60% of young offenders have low language skills
  • the long-term negative impacts of language difficulties suggest that their associated costs to individuals, their families, and society across the life course are likely to be high

It is important that these risks are interpreted in context – even with these increased risks, many children with SLCN will have a healthy and happy childhood and will grow into adults who can contribute positively to society. Identification of language difficulties is an additional opportunity to identify and support the most vulnerable children.


Approximately 10% of children and young people have long term SLCN which cause them significant difficulties with communication or learning in everyday life.

Children from socially disadvantaged families are more than twice as likely to be identified with a SLCN. Due to social clustering, more than 50% of children living in areas of high social deprivation may start school with SLCN.

Disparities in early language and communication development relating to social deprivation are recognisable in the second year of life; they have a negative impact on children’s development by the time they start school, in terms of literacy development, as well as social, emotional and behavioural development.

In 2017/18, 82.4% of all children reached a ‘good level of development in communication and language skills’ at age 5, compared to only 71.9% of children who were eligible for free school meals.

Not all SLCN are preventable and some children will have persistent speech, language or communication learning needs throughout their school careers. For example, it is estimated that 7.6% of children (2 in every class of 30) start school with developmental language disorder (DLD) of unknown origin and a further 2.3% of children start school with a language disorder associated with intellectual disability and/or existing medical diagnosis.

Bercow: Ten Years On

Bercow: Ten Years On is a report on the state of provision for children’s speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) in England.

The report stated that currently many children with SLCN are unidentified and “poor understanding of, and insufficient resourcing for SLCN means too many children and young people receive inadequate, ineffective and inequitable support, impacting on their educational outcomes, their employability and their mental health”.

The report stated that without a shift in approach, not all children with SLCN will receive the support they require and highlights that:

  1. communication is crucial to children’s life chances, yet awareness of its importance among the public and decision makers is not sufficient.
  2. strategic system-wide approaches to supporting SLCN are rare; very often SLCN does not feature in national or local policies.
  3. specialist services are inaccessible and inequitable. Too often support for children’s SLCN is planned and funded based on the available resources, rather than what is needed, leading to an unacceptable level of variation across the country.
  4. there are evidence-based interventions that significantly improve child language, however, evidence is frequently not taken into account when planning services.
  5. too many children with SLCN are not being formally identified and are therefore not getting the vital support they need; even when identified, many children are not receiving timely support.