SPEECH THERAPY – TELEGRAPH ARTICLE MAY 22
Toddlers’ speech and motor skills have dropped sharply in the wake of the pandemic, official data show.
Experts said that repeated lockdowns had left young children without the chance to play and learn how to communicate, setting back their development.
The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT) raised fears that the gaps being witnessed now could widen in coming years, with increasing numbers of children struggling at school because basic skills were never learned.
Assessments show that one in five children are not meeting expected standards by the age of two-and-a-half, with thousands likely to need help such as speech and language therapy.
The figures came amid warnings from speech and language therapists that they are facing increasing demand, with one in three saying referrals have doubled since the pandemic.
Figures published by the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities show that 79.6 per cent of children who received a review last autumn met the expected level in all five areas of development measured.
Across the preceding three-and-a-half years covered by the data, the figure was 83.1 per cent, the Health Service Journal reported.
‘Therapists unable to keep up with demand’
Kamini Gadhok, the chief executive of the RCSLT, said its members were “very worried” about the number of toddlers struggling with communication, which is closely linked to later readiness for school and educational attainment.
“The bigger the gap by the time the child is five, the more difficult it is to close,” she said, warning that without early intervention, such children are also far more likely to suffer emotional and behavioural problems.
Therapists are unable to keep up with demand, she said.
“Our members tell us that growing lists and waiting times for speech and language therapy are dramatically impacting on their ability to provide the support which children need for the best start in life,” she added.
Alison Morton, the executive director of the Institute of Health Visiting, said: “The latest national child development data highlight a worrying picture with fewer children at or above the expected level of development at two to two-and-a-half years. While the majority of children are developing as expected, a significant and growing minority are not.
“The pandemic and its impacts are not over. In many areas, despite health visitors’ best efforts, they are now struggling to meet growing levels of need, vulnerability and a backlog of children who need support.”
Significant drop in communication skills
Communication skills suffered one of the most significant falls in performance, according to data. Just 85.3 per cent of children hit the expected standard, down from 88.1 per cent over the previous 14 quarters.
Dr Doug Simkiss, the chairman of the British Association for Community Child Health, said: “The pandemic reduced the opportunities for children to play with other children and highlights the importance of nurseries and early years settings for language development.”
The five areas assessed by the screening questionnaire are communication skills, gross motor skills, fine motor skills, problem-solving and personal-social.
When scores fall below expected levels, interventions can include monitoring from health visitors or referrals to specialist help, such as speech and language therapy.
However, separate data show that the number of full-time-equivalent health visitors has fallen by 40 per cent since Oct 2015, with a 10 per cent drop seen during the pandemic.
Figures for January of this year show 6,824 such workers compared with 10,309 in October 2015.
Demand for therapy double pre-Covid levels
An RCSLT report, published in January, warned that services were facing high levels of demand, with 29 per cent of those surveyed saying they faced demand of double pre-Covid levels.
An NHS England report on community services, published in April, showed only 63 per cent of speech and language therapy intervention services for children had been restored to their pre-pandemic state as of January. Of those, 86 per cent said they were experiencing a backlog.
A government spokesman said: “We are committed to ensuring that every child has the best start in life, which is why we are working hard to improve support for families, including through funding local authorities to deliver frontline services.
“We are also investing £500 million in breastfeeding services, parent and infant mental health support, and a new network of family hubs – a one-stop-shop where families can access services – to improve support for babies, children and families in 75 local authorities across England.”