Children are waiting up to a year for support from speech and language therapists, meaning they come “into school with far more significant need and the system gets more broken”.
Ten per cent of children have a speech and language need. SLT assessments are also important for diagnosing autism, which is strongly linked to communication needs.
The number of people diagnosed with autism has jumped more than 20-fold in the past two decades, University of Exeter researchers revealed this year.
There’s been a big increase in need, especially children entering reception
But one in four autistic children are waiting more than three years for a diagnosis, according to the National Autistic Society.
Demand for speech and language therapists is now outstripping supply. Plymouth CAST warned it could “only [get] a few hours free on the NHS”, while Kent Catholic Schools Partnership said referrals were taking eight months.
Many schools across the Oasis academy trust now buy in private SLTs.
Only nine NHS trusts could confirm their costing arrangements for 2020-21, with five charging schools and the rest free.
The highest cost to schools was £26.99 per hour, at North Cumbria Integrated Care.
But of eight NHS trusts to provide the figures, seven confirmed they had waiting lists. The longest was “up to 56 weeks” in Bradford, followed by North Cumbria on 52 weeks, and Herefordshire and Worcestershire on 18 weeks.
9 in 10 trusts report vacancies
Meanwhile vacancies across the system are rife. Of 18 NHS trusts to provide data, 89 per cent had SLT vacancies last year.
The area with the highest number of vacancies was Bradford, with 17, up from six in 2018.
Kamini Gadhok, chief executive at the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, says health policy is too focused on adults and “children need a higher priority”.
“There are children in early years who could be helped, who may be on the autistic spectrum but aren’t being identified.
“This means they’re coming into schools with far more significant need, so the whole system gets more broken.”
Nor can schools expect to rely on private speech therapists. Sarah Buckley, vice-chair of the Association of Speech and Language Therapists in Independent Practice, says her 1,500 members are “completely booked out. There’s been a big increase in need, especially children entering reception.”