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Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from the Communication Trust

Background to The Communication Trust (TCT)

The Communication Trust is a coalition organisation bringing together 40 voluntary and community sector organisations with expertise in children’s speech, language and communication. Supported with funding from Department for Education, Youth Justice Board and other funders we work to improve the speech, language and communication skills of children and young people and to ensure that children with speech, language and communication needs are better supported and included. We are delighted to provide a response to the Justice Committee’s inquiry into youth justice.

Much of the Trust’s projects to date involve improving the understanding of the children and young people’s workforce of speech, language and communication needs and promoting relevant resources for practitioners working in Early Years, Primary and Secondary education. However, an increasingly important area of the Trust’s work is targeting those working in the youth justice system, which has within it a disproportionately high percentage of children and young people with unrecognised and un-met communication needs.

The Trust has focused this submission on those young offenders who have communication needs and we are pleased that youth justice is being considered by the Justice Committee. This is a crucial issue because research undertaken by Professor Karen Bryan of the University of Surrey has shown that at least 60% of young people in custody have communication needs. In the majority of cases, these young people’s communication difficulties had previously been unidentified and therefore their needs unmet. The House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts also recently published a report which found that current forms of offender assessment do not give sufficient weight to communication needs which can severely impact on the ability of a young offender to engage with or understand the requirements of their sentence plan. Obviously where communication needs exist and remain unsupported this can potentially impact on the effectiveness of restorative justice measures, on efforts to divert young people away from first time offending and on efforts to divert young people from reoffending.

Background to Speech, Language and Communication needs

Speech language and communication skills are the basis for other key life skills: learning, literacy, positive relationships and regulation of behaviour and emotions.1 Speaking and listening skills underpin pupil outcomes; young people with good communication skills have a wider range of life chances.2

As many as 10% of children in the UK, over one million, have speech, language and communication needs, which are not caused by language neglect, or by having English as an additional language or other external factors. This means that in the average classroom, there are two or three children with such communication difficulties. Of this group, a large cohort—between 5–7% of the child population—have specific language impairment (SLI), meaning that they have difficulties with learning and using language that are not associated with factors such as general learning difficulties, or other conditions, such as cerebral palsy, hearing impairment or autistic spectrum disorders. A child with SLI might be bright, but struggle to understand the language used in the classroom, and thus struggle to attain and achieve.

Department for Education annual SEN statistics for 2010 found that speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) is the most common type of primary need for pupils with SEN statements in maintained primary schools, with 26.5% of all statemented children in this age group having SLCN as their primary need.3 In some parts of the UK, those with high unemployment and poor housing, the prevalence rate of SLCN rises. In areas of social deprivation upwards of 50% of children, equivalent to as many as 17% per classroom, are starting school with language delay.4 There is also evidence of a high incidence of communication difficulties (often unidentified) in those who are young offenders,5 looked after children6 and those who have conduct disorder7 as well as other social emotional and behavioural difficulties.8 , 9

The Communication Trust’s Work to Date

The 2008 Bercow Review identified a lack of awareness in the children’s workforce around the importance of speech language and communication and the significant impact of SLCN on educational attainment, behaviour and mental health. As a result, it recommended that there is a need for the workforce to develop a set of core skills in children’s and young people’s speech, language and communication needs. The Government’s response to the review, the Better Communication Action Plan, set out a range of initiatives to improve services for children with such needs and it recognised the concerns around how the special educational needs of young people in custody are being met. The Trust’s Youth Justice Programme was developed as a direct result.

The Communication Trust has been undertaking a programme of work to engage with aspects of the youth justice workforce to increase their knowledge and understanding of communication needs and their confidence and ability to manage young people with communication needs to ensure the best possible outcomes for all involved.

Funded by the Department for Education we are delivering outcomes in partnership with a number of colleagues including the Dyslexia-SpLD Trust, Autism Education Trust, Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, Association of Youth Offending Team Managers, Youth Justice Board, Skills for Justice and the University of Surrey. We are also working with the Ministry of Justice to ensure that our work informs emerging policy in the field of young offender support and management.

In November 2009 the Trust published Sentence Trouble, a booklet aimed at everyone that works or volunteers in Youth Offending Teams (YOTs), Young Offenders Institutions (YOIs), Secure Children’s Homes (STCs) and Secure Training Centres (STCs). It is intended to help improve understanding and communication with children and young people, particularly those with communication needs.

In May 2010 the Trust launched the Sentence Trouble website (www.sentencetrouble.info). The purpose of the website is to enhance and build on the information contained within the booklet. It features a forum for sharing information and a regularly expanded resources section featuring useful links, general resources, information about youth justice campaigns and academic research.

We have reached over 30,000 people through the Sentence Trouble project to date with numbers expected to increase still further as we start to roll the rest of the youth justice programme out more widely. On 18 November 2010 the Sentence Trouble resources were one of a handful of projects to be awarded a High Commendation in the 2010 Children and Young People Now Awards.

Working with a variety of organisations including the Youth Justice Board (who have provided funding and support) and the National Offender Management Service, the Trust is also delivering communication needs training across the youth justice sector, including to YOT, YOI, STC and SCH staff. Funding provided by the YJB has enabled us to continue rolling out training to YOTs and has also enabled us to roll-out training to Welsh YOTs.

The Trust’s programmes to date have achieved the following:

Total number of YOTs who have accessed the Trust’s training—74.

Total number of YOT staff who have accessed the training—1,700.

Have distributed 40,000 copies of the Sentence Trouble booklet.

In partnership with YJB and HM Courts and Tribunals Service we have provided three bespoke communication needs workshop sessions for magistrates and the legal profession to 120 people.

Have provided training session for managers from HM Probation Service.

Currently delivering bespoke workshop sessions for staff at YOIs, STCs and SCHs and working with the YJB and NOMs to develop sessions suitable for delivery as part of the new training programme that will replace the Juvenile Awareness Staff Programme (JASP).

Youth Justice Workforce

As mentioned previously, at least 60% of young people in custody have communication needs, significantly higher than the general population. People with SLCN have difficulties in communicating with others. This may be because they cannot say what they want to, they have difficulty understanding what is being said to them or they do not understand social rules. For some this may be temporary whilst for others their needs will be complex and long term. These needs can impact on a young person’s behaviour, their confidence and their relationships with other people, alongside educational progression and attainment.

The ways in which youth justice staff interact with the young people they work with can make a big difference. It can help young people to engage and want to participate; they are more likely to understand and less likely to become aggressive or disengage; less time will be spent on managing behaviour. Awareness and good practice strategies around speech, language and communication needs will ensure language and communication is not a barrier to education and skills training and therefore enable any other direct work to be more successful. Ensuring that youth justice staff understand what communication needs are and how they can affect young people, and ensuring that staff have strategies to support young people can ensure that young people engage more fully and more often.

These young people are often not able to benefit from verbally mediated interventions such as education and offender behaviour work which can contribute to re-offending. TCT has found that the provision of young offender learning is often FE college led and that there is a wider pattern of evidence that FE provision for young people with SLCN does not meet their needs.

The Bercow Review estimated that 210,000 children and young people pass through the Criminal Justice System each year, who may benefit from preventative approaches which ensure early identification and support for children who are recognised as vulnerable or at risk of offending. Vulnerable young people with communication problems may be unable to express themselves effectively, resulting in disruptive and aggressive behaviour. Research has found that offenders gaining oral communication skills qualifications were 50% less likely to re-offend in the year after release than the national average.10

TCT has found the justice workforce needs better training and support to help those young people with SLCN. TCT is therefore, running a programme of work focused on working to increase the awareness of the scale and the impact of communication needs on young people within the youth justice system by producing a range of materials for staff working in Youth Offending Teams, Secure Children’s Homes, Secure Training Centres and Young Offenders Institutions.

Evaluation of the training we have provided to YOTs has shown that YOT staff are committed to improving the lives and outcomes of the young people they work with. In some areas staff have used the Trust’s training to help build on existing strategies to support young people with speech, language and communication needs. In other areas where knowledge and strategies have been more limited YOT staff have seen the significant benefits that this support can provide young people and are adapting the ways in which they work to achieve better outcomes. Feedback to the training has been largely excellent but it has been the enthusiasm of YOT staff that has made it a success. Many staff, in often very busy environments are finding time to introduce changes to working practice to better support the young people they work with, despite time and resource issues. However, YOT staff are working creativity to adapt strategies to suit the needs of the young people they work with;

“I had a young person, only 12, finding it hard to engage, I took a blank a3 sheet, drew a road, drew stages of his offence, drew stop signs at points at which he could offend. He really enjoyed it and benefited [from the session]. He seemed quite shocked, when he realised: ‘I shouldn’t have run away from police, I could have stayed at home.’ Realisations without prompting. Simple exercise that he could really engage with. YP really enjoyed it and said thank you. Nice surprise. Mum said he had never engaged before like that.”

“Changed the style of some of the meetings, multi agencies—used to be professionals, families and young person and language far too confusing—now I would meet with family and young person go through things with them and then go in the multi agency meeting.”

“Timetables have changed across the whole team. Text message reminders for sessions are used more since training. We now identify their preferred method of communication and there has been increased attendance for some.”

Secure Institutions

Currently secure institutions frequently identify young people with speech and language needs, but our experience is that in many cases these needs are not being addressed through any systematic commissioning process. Instead, facilities adapt services or have a member of staff with experience of speech and language needs by chance. Currently, only a small number youth custodial establishments have access to speech and language therapists.

The Trust would like to see more effort from the Government so that the need for specialist youth training for magistrates and defence lawyers is addressed and that the minimum standard of youth training in the secure estate to include speech, language and disability awareness, The Trust acknowledges that only a third of staff in Youth Offending Institutions have completed the Juvenile Awareness Staff Programme (JASP) training but would emphasise the importance of the on-going collaborative work of the JASP Steering Group which is reviewing the current raining programme to ensure it more fully meets the needs of staff. The Trust forms part of this group, along with the Youth Justice Board, National Offender Management Service (NOMS) and other key organisations in the sector. The Trust would also like to see the Government do more to increase access to speech, language and communication needs training and resources across the youth justice workforce, including policy officers.

Screening and Early Intervention

TCT would like to bring to the Committee’s attention the importance of screening to identify young people at sufficient risk of SLCN to warrant further investigation, and immediate preventive intervention delivered by staff in front-line universal services. Speech and language skills are a critical factor in social disadvantage and in the intergenerational cycles that perpetuate poverty. Poor language skills are the key reason why, by the age of 22 months, a more able child from a low income home will begin to be overtaken developmentally by an initially less able child from a high-income home—and why by the age of five, the gap has widened still more. Low income children lag their high income counterparts at school entry by sixteen months in vocabulary. The gap in language is very much larger than gaps in other cognitive skills.

Research shows the level of speech and language development in children as young as two years of age is a powerful predictor of their future educational social and personal achievement. If we can identify and support children with communication difficulties at this early stage it is much more likely these difficulties can be resolved.

The Communication Trust supports a graduated response at both the universal and targeted level to ensure support is available for a wide range of communication needs. In our experience, unaddressed language delay, even for those with high incidence, low need SLCN, can lead to permanently entrenched difficulties in the longer term. Unaddressed SLCN caused by impairment is also a public health issue. Those with unaddressed, speech language and communication needs are at risk of problems with literacy, numeracy and learning.11 They are less likely to leave school with qualifications12 or job prospects and are in danger of becoming NEET (Not in Employment, Education or Training at 16–18), as are young people who have spent time in alternative provision.13 Speech, language and communication needs are strongly associated with mental health problems as well as other social emotional and behavioural difficulties.14 However, where specialist intervention is required, screening in the early years would lead to more timely and accurate referral—essential given the pressure on scarce specialist speech and language services.

Sadly, at present, many children are not identified and do not receive the vital speech and language therapy they need from an early age. Many children are wrongly labelled as having behavioural problems, without any recognition of their communication difficulties. Many of these children will then go on to offend. In order to improve this situation the Communication Trust would like to see SLCN regarded as a public health issue under the Health and Social Care Bill reforms. A number of Primary Care Trusts and local authorities in England have recognised the importance of boosting early language and communication development. They have aligned the work of speech and language therapists with the Healthy Child Programme and Sure Start Children’s Centres to create a powerful public health approach based on primary prevention. However, many local areas are still not doing enough to address SLCN and it is clear that the economic and social benefits of early intervention and prevention of SLCN must be better promoted.

The focus of the Trust’s work is on improving functional communication skills to improve access to learning and to other programmes intended to reduce re-offending. The Trust has rolled out this work to community and secure estate settings with significant interest from centres who see the value of this work to both custodial and educational staff.

March 2012

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9 Snow, P C and Powell, M B (2005). What’s the story? An exploration of narrative language abilities in male juvenile offenders. Psychology, Crime and Law 11(3) 239–253.
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10 Moseley et al, The impact of ESB oral communication courses in HM Prisons—an independent evaluation in Developing oral communication and productive thinking skills in HM Prisons (2006), Learning and Skills Research Centre.

11 Stothard et al 1998 and Communication Disability and Literacy Difficulties I CAN Talk (2006).

12 Snowling M J, Adams J, Bishop D V M and Stothard S E (2001). Educational Attainments of School Leaver with a Pre-school History of Speech-Language Impairments IJLCD Vol 36.

13 I CAN Talk Series 4 Language and Social Exclusion. http://www.ican.org.uk/upload2/publications/language%20and%20social%20exclusion%20report.pdf

14 Toppelberg C O, Shapiro T (2000). Language disorders: A 10-year research update review. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 39: 143–152.

Prepared 13th March 2013