Children with speech problems could benefit from new early help approach

A new agreement is being negotiated to provide speech and language services for children across Lancashire
A new agreement is being negotiated to provide speech and language services for children across Lancashire

Children with speech and language difficulties could get earlier and more consistent help – if providers of therapy services agree to a new contract.

The three Lancashire NHS trusts which currently deliver the service are being asked to sign a new agreement about how it operates.

A meeting of Lancashire County Council’s health scrutiny committee heard that the proposed changes could avoid the need for youngsters to be issued with formal education, health and care plans (EHCPs) for children with additional needs – a formal process which can take up to 20 weeks.

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The Lancashire Special Education Needs and Disabilities (SEND) Partnership has agreed the new arrangements with the clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) which buy the services. However, negotiations are continuing with the hospital trusts which provide them.

The SEND partnership had hoped to have the new agreement in place by April and committee member Nikki Hennessy said the providers should be given a 30-day deadline to sign up.

“As a child, if you can’t communicate, you are not learning,” she said.

But Dave Carr, Head of Policy and Commissioning at Lancashire County Council, said the trusts had to consider the “implications and affordability” of the proposals.

“With some of the providers, we’re very close [to agreement] and with one we are [having that] conversation. We are trying to make the service better so that people can access it without being driven towards an education, health and care plan.

“It’s about getting the [necessary] support earlier,” Mr Carr said.

Hilary Fordham, representing CCGs on the SEND Partnership, said a critical report into Lancashire’s special needs provision in 2017, had highlighted the “inconsistency” of services like speech and language therapy across the county.

Commenting on the proposals to the local democracy reporting service, a former NHS manager of speech language services, said the focus on early intervention is vital.

“Behaviour is a form of communication and so children can start to present with other difficulties if their speech problems are not picked up,” said Gillian White, who now runs the Thornton-based private practice Happy Talk and was speaking in a personal capacity.

“Parents also need support, because if they don’t know how to interact with their child, they can be left at a loss.

“Children with language difficulties can be helped to overcome the obstacles with the right support and the NHS has always done a lot of early intervention work,” added Gillian, who worked in the health service for 28 years.

A report by the charity I-Can, “The Cost to the Nation of Children’s Poor Communication”, concluded that speech and language difficulties can cause social and emotional problems and issues with forming friendships.

The three providers with whom negotiations over a new service specification in Lancashire are continuing are Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust and University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust.