Despite her two year term as Communication Champion officially ending in December, Jean Gross was up with the lark this morning for a 5 minute slot on the Daybreak sofa to talk about ‘testing’ of 2 years olds.
Having read her carefully considered and detailed final report, I knew that what Jean had actually asked for was inclusion of “a measure of children’s communication and language development at age two” (p.10) in the Department of Health’s Public Health outcomes framework. On the report’s release a week ago, the press furore was around its supposed call that parents should receive texts to remind them to talk to their children. What Jean actually recommended was that the Department for Education should “provide parents with interesting, accessible information on how to enjoy and support their child’s communication and language development from birth onwards, using…the full range of technologies – phone apps with free film and text content, social media, texting, daytime television and so on – in order to ensure reach” (p.11).
Early identification, workforce capacity building, skill mix and team work, joint commissioning, user and voluntary sector involvement and the need to measure impact are all among the report’s recommendations. There is a focus on specialist services including AAC, speech and language therapy provision in different settings, and hard to reach populations. A strong theme is the need for greater recognition of speech, language and communication difficulties in children with behaviour problems. There is plenty of food for thought for speech and language therapists when Jean highlights the continuation of ineffective models of intervention where therapists are expected “to ‘fix’ children through face-to-face work” (p.25) and urges us to question our practice in relation to people who do not attend.
In using examples from a number of places which have really embraced the idea that communication is everyone’s business, Jean shows that transformation is a realistic prospect even when budgets are under enormous pressure. This contrasts with her frustration at the loss of services in other areas and concerns about the long-term impact.
I have often reflected on the strength of character, strategic nous, inveterate networking and chameleon-like adaptability that a ‘champion’ position requires. Presenting complex arguments in soundbites to answer TV presenters’ questions such as “Do you think children as young as 2 should be tested for how well they speak?” is just another prerequisite of the job. Admittedly “Do you think it is better to spot a communication problem early and help a child and their family rather than letting them struggle?”, “Do you think good quality information should be available to parents who want to know more about child language development?” and “Do you think people working with young children should know how to get them listening and talking well?” don’t invite quite the same controversy.
On the positive side, every media opportunity raises awareness of communication and gets people talking about talking, and the Communication Champion’s role has been to make this happen at every level. Media coverage is aimed at the general public but, for those with a real interest in supporting children’s communication, the report offers a more complete picture of where we are at and where we should aspire to be going.