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Questions remain over future of specialist speech and language education provision in Suffolk

PUBLISHED: 13:44 17 June 2019 | UPDATED: 13:44 17 June 2019

Councillor Chris Chambers, deputy cabinet member for education Picture: AMY GIBBONS

Councillor Chris Chambers, deputy cabinet member for education Picture: AMY GIBBONS

AMY GIBBONS

Campaigners over changes to speech and language education services in Suffolk have said they still have unanswered questions, following the unveiling of latest plans.

Cllr Jack Abbott.  Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNCllr Jack Abbott. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Suffolk County Council had planned a host of new outreach measures for children with specialist speech and language needs, but proposed to axe the three specialist centres in Ipswich, Lowestoft and Bury St Edmunds.

Parents were supportive of the outreach provision, but were highly critical of the three centres being closed, prompting a U-turn by the council last week in which it said those three sites would be absorbed into new specialist units attached to mainstream schools.

But following a public meeting last week organised by parent campaigners, further questions over admissions still remain.

A spokeswoman from the group said: "We feel representatives of Suffolk County Council failed to confirm that children attending the units either currently or in the future would receive the same or better provision.

"Questions about the criteria for accessing the language units provided no clear answers.

"This reinforced the suspicion, prompted by the council's own papers, that the units would be opened up to children across the full range of special educational needs in need of speech and language therapy."

It prompted fears that places at the specialist speech and language units could be taken by those with other special educational needs and prevent those with more complex speech needs to access a place.

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The group has been backed by national speech and language charity Afasic, whose chief executive Linda Lascelles at last week's meeting said the increased provision across the county was to be welcomed, but warned that having no specialist units would have a negative impact.

Conservative councillor Chris Chambers, deputy cabinet member for education at Suffolk County Council said: "We welcomed hearing the views of families, and from a representative of Afasic during the meeting on 10 June.

"We are committed to holding further discussions on development of this service with a number of people as we move forward, including a meeting with teachers at the Rushmere Unit in Ipswich.

"I fully understand the significance of this service and the need to get it right for the children and parents involved.

"Details of the specific admission criteria and the approach we are taking to expand the service provision will be included in the cabinet committee report in July.

"We will of course also continue to engage with all families directly during that time to ensure they understand the process fully.

"Children aged four to seven, who are agreed by the council to have need of a place in a specialist unit because of a speech, language or communication need, will have priority in admissions to a relevant support unit with a designated communication and interaction specialism and will have the opportunity to access a place at their most local specialist unit for Reception/Key Stage 1 if this is the parent's preference."

Labour education spokesman Jack Abbott added: "The need for clarity around admissions is crucially important. If these hubs do not specifically cater for children with significant speech and learning needs, then Suffolk County Council's recent announcement is largely immaterial.

"This review has essentially been conducted over an 18-month period. That the council still haven't formed a position on this fundamental question - just weeks from a final decision - is undoubtedly a huge cause for concern.

"The ramifications of not providing the right support to children with severe speech and language needs were made abundantly clear to the council's representatives. I hope they take on board the strength of feeling on this issue, reflect on the evidence before them and come to the right decision."

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