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Widening participation for students with Speech, Language and Communication needs in higher education

  • 8 December 2020
  • By Kathy Childs

This blog was kindly contributed by Kathy Childs. Kathy did her MSc in Education, Leadership and Management at the University of East Anglia.

Widening participation was a challenge already facing higher education institutions. Yet with the impact of COVID-19 this challenge has become even greater, particularly when considering the most vulnerable students such as those with Speech, Language and Communication Needs (SLCN). As previously considered in a HEPI blog, there is a financial burden facing the government when investing in policies that promote and support widening participation – and this burden is a heavy one. UK governments have a track record of abandoning such policy decisions during times of financial stringency. Widening participation is simply seen as ‘expendable’. This post discusses why it is now so important to invest in widening participation policies within SLCN given the gap in students’ development.

At the start of the year on the HEPI blog, Dr John Butcher reviewed 20 years of widening participation articles and found little had changed between ‘access to higher education for the least and most privileged groups’. For students with disabilities including SLCN this is worrying. So, what is really being done to support these students?

It is reasonable to ask why policy should fund widening participation for this group. One answer for this would be that there is a strong link between communication skills and social disadvantage. Factors such as being eligible for free school meals and living in a deprived neighbourhood mean children are 2.3 times more likely to be recognised as having an SLCN. In deprived areas 50 per cent of children start school with delayed language skills. Shockingly, the vocabulary level of children at age five is the best indicator of whether socially deprived children would be able to escape poverty in their later adult life.

To gain a wider perspective we can see the differences children with SLCN present in comparison to others. At age six there is only a few months difference in the reading age of children with SLCN and those without, but at 14 this has increased to a five year reading gap. Just 20 per cent of pupils with SLCN achieved 5+ GCSEs at grades A* to C including English and Mathematics. This compares to 70 per cent of pupils with no identified special educational needs (SEN) – an attainment gap of 50 per cent. A child’s vocabulary at age five is a large predictor of school level qualifications. In 2019, the number of pupils with SEN rose for the third year to 15 per cent of all pupils with the highest need being SLCN at 22 per cent.

The Communication Trust, a body for over 50 non-profit organisations supporting speech, language and communication, wrote in their response to the Life Chances Inquiry 2018 that closing the gap for disadvantaged children with SLCN needs to be ‘a clear priority of the government’.

Nicole Damala, a Speech and Language therapist shared some of her views about these issues with me. She emphasised the importance of primary level intervention:

Speech and language formulates early on in an individual’s development (up to age of seven) therefore the sooner the intervention occurs the easier it is for the individual to access mainstream education.

I would say that the earlier the intervention occurs the more progress is seen.

She notes that early intervention is not always possible as other issues such as mental health challenges may need to be addressed first. Yet if they are then neglected, the individual’s motivation and engagement with the sessions could be affected.

When asked about what higher education settings can do to widen participation, Nicole stated:

When it comes to participation I would say that staff need to know their students’ needs. If they know how students respond and how best they work (need for repetition, visual support, verbal support, 1;1 support) then they can make education more accessible.

Training is important and so is advocacy. Even if universities know how to support students, they also need to advocate and speak up for them! They can’t always do that for themselves which often means that they don’t get what they need and end up in challenging situations.

There is much that higher education institutions can do but they need to be properly supported by the Government to provide these early interventions that are necessary. Underfunding is a huge issue for those with SLCN and waiting lists ‘are now almost exceeding 18 months’. Local authorities are spending more money than they have in order to support SEND children which has created a funding gap of £643 million which severely puts SEN children at risk.

Turning to further education and life beyond compulsory education, communication plays a key role in day-to-day activity. It is a vital skill and those that need it most should be given continued support. Yet currently some students are ‘forced to bend themselves to fit archaic university systems because institutions are unwilling or unable to become more inclusive’. Despite this, very few colleges and further education institutions offer specialised support for those with SLCN. Yet there is evidence of the positive influences that intervention has on ‘psychosocial outcomes and on successful transitions to employment’.

To conclude these policy recommendations seem likely to achieve widening participation:

With specialised funding into primary level institutions, participation is likely to widen in universities as more students will have been diagnosed and received crucial interventions at an early age when these are most effective. Support post-secondary will help bridge the gap between compulsory education and higher education. This will assist students with SLCN to still receive support in a new environment when facing different scenarios. Finally, awareness and training of staff in higher education will help induce an inclusive atmosphere – one in which some students no longer need to bend to fit an archaic system.

1 comment

  1. Wendy Best says:

    Such important points to raise awareness made by Kathy Childs here, thank you. Policies need to change to facilitate inclusion of people with Speech Language and Communication needs in Higher Education.

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