Does SLCN really decrease with age?


by Louise Bingham – Speech and Language Therapist
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The latest Department for Education report on SEN statistics has been published and being the geeky SLT that I am, I have found the results very interesting! I have waded through the tables and stats to (hopefully) make this interesting for everyone. The information has been taken from a school census on pupils with SEN in mainstream and specialist provisions.

Looking at the information presented, you could be forgiven for thinking that SLCN decreases as pupils get older… which is something that I wanted to look at more closely.

Firstly, SLCN is now the most common primary area of need for pupils with SEN support at 23%, which previously had been MLD. We know that the number of children with SLCN is increasing, with up to 50% of children in some areas starting school with language difficulties, therefore it is promising to see a rise within the government’s statistics. This may also reflect a better understanding and identification of children’s difficulties, some of which may have previously been incorrectly identified as having MLD, rather than SLCN. The reflection of this change within the data could be a positive step towards children with SLCN finally being prioritised by the government!

In contrast, the most common primary area of need for pupils with an EHCP continues to be Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) at 29% with only 15% of pupils having SLCN as their primary area of need on the plan. This means that the distribution of primary type of need varies greatly between children with SEN support and those with an EHCP. One of the concerns that I had following the SEND Code of Practice in 2014 was with the removal of School Action and School Action Plus levels, where many of the children with DLD and SLCN would have sat. I was worried that many of these pupils either wouldn’t meet the requirements to receive an EHCP or wouldn’t need an EHCP, but still need intervention or specialist support in schools. Due to the legal requirements associated with an EHCP and limited resources, schools and SLT services often feel that they are not able to provide as much support for SEN pupils who do not have an EHCP. This indicates that the needs of many children with SLCN are not being met, even though the numbers of children with SLCN are increasing.

One of the most concerning parts of the report highlights the change in most common need type, as pupils increase in age. In general, younger pupils are more likely to have SLCN as their primary area of need, however as they get older, their primary need is more likely to be MLD or SEMH. The implication that the number of pupils with SLCN decreases as they get older is very worrying, especially as there is a large evidence base repeatedly showing the link between untreated SLCN and poor academic progress and/or difficult behaviour. Research has shown that there are significant levels of SLCN (between 50 and 80%) within many groups who demonstrate challenging behaviour, for example young offenders. The report’s findings, therefore, worrying indicate that for a large proportion of pupils, their underlying language difficulties are still being missed.

Even though DLD is more common that ASD, pupils with this diagnosis can be thought of as having a hidden disability and the link between challenging behaviour and underlying language difficulties can be difficult to determine. For a pupil with DLD or SLCN, the feelings of frustration and confusion that arise from language difficulties can result in challenging behaviour and this may be one of the first outward signs that people notice. Many pupils prefer to be reprimanded for challenging behaviour, rather than admitting they don’t understand the lesson or their work, and who can blame them.

For older pupils, SEMH difficulties or MLD may appear to be their main areas of need, as they are more easily identified and probably causing significant difficulties at school. It is very likely, however, that many of these pupils have underlying language and communication needs, which are resulting in the other areas of difficulty identified. The sooner that language and communication difficulties are identified, the sooner support can be put in place to target this area, which will have a significant impact on learning and behaviour. Support put in place to solely address behaviour management or learning, often which uses strategies relying on verbal communication, will not be effective in supporting the pupil.

The importance of early identification and intervention is frequently emphasised for pupils with SLCN and this often means that the focus (and funding) is on supporting pre-school or early years children. Early intervention should be thought about at any age, and the emphasis should be on supporting pupils as soon as difficulties are noticed. It is crucial that you consider whether an underlying language difficulty could be behind challenging behaviour or difficulties in accessing the curriculum, so that the correct support can be put in place as soon as possible for the pupil.