Thousands of children in East of England waiting for treatment in speech and language crisis

  • Teddy is among thousands of children waiting for speech and language therapy, as Neil Barbour reports for ITV News Anglia

Thousands of children who need help from a speech and language are being forced to wait as the service copes with high demand, ITV News research has revealed.

One former NHS speech and language therapist (SLT) described the level of pressure as being "like firefighting" as services struggle to get through the backlog and provide help to young people who need it.

ITV News Anglia submitted Freedom of Information requests to the NHS trusts that provide speech and language services in the East of England.

Around half of those services replied - showing that at least 5,146 children and young people were on the waiting list on 4 April of this year.

Lauren Flannery, a speech and language therapist in the NHS for 10 years who now teaches the next generation at the University of East Anglia, said families were suffering.

"We've got families who are urgently needing our support and we just haven't got the resources to cover it," she said.

"It often feels as a clinician working in that system that you're just firefighting, and it's really difficult to give the children and the families the care that they need."

Credit: ITV News Anglia

What's the picture across the region?

ITV News Anglia's figures also highlight the enormous workload facing speech and language therapists.

In some areas of the East of England, patient to therapist ratios are 100:1 or more.

In the area covered by Northamptonshire NHS Healthcare Trust, there are 33 speech and language professionals and a caseload of 5,775 patients, meaning 175 patients to every expert.

A spokesperson for Northamptonshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust said it was "committed to working with system partners to respond to the challenges", which included a rising case load and staffing pressures.

"These types of challenges are being seen by similar services across the country," added a spokesman.

They pointed to a recovery plan for the service, which has seen a prioritised recruitment process for speech and language therapists introduced, leading to the lowest vacancy rate for the service in several years.

The number of children and young people waiting for 18 weeks or more in the area has also fallen by 27% since April 2023 and the trust also said it was committed to reducing waiting times for those who have been waiting 18 weeks or more.

Cambridgeshire Community Services Trust, which runs SLT services in Cambridge, Bedfordshire, and Norfolk and Waveney, had 2,741 on the waiting list - though it said average waiting times were falling.

A spokesman said it recognised "waiting is frustrating for families who are trying to get their child the support they need in these times of increased demand".

“Our focus has been on getting the right support for families in a timely way. With new ways of working in Cambridgeshire, we’ve been able to reduce the average wait for a speech and language appointment to just a few weeks," adding that it was working to roll out that approach to other areas using extra funding.

In Essex University Partnership Trust, the caseload is 2,353 children, spread across 23 therapists - a ratio of 100:1.

Joanne Page, principal paediatric speech and language therapist for Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust (EPUT), said the trust had seen an increase in demand for its services, and its staff were working with partners "to provide the best care and support to meet children’s individual needs”.

Teddy at one of his favourite places, the zoo, with his father Oli. Credit: ITV News Anglia

'They see him like a lost cause'

Among those who have been waiting years for SLT are the family six-year-old Teddy, who is autistic and does not speak, whose story ITV News Anglia has been following as part of its Speechless series.

His father Oli Neighbour, from Bedfordshire, said: "We've not seen the service. We could walk past the local speech and language service and they wouldn't know who Teddy is.

"It feels to me as though, because Teddy doesn't speak, they almost see him like a lost cause."

Teddy's mother Jess said: "When people realise he's non-speaking they won't necessarily look at him, they'll just talk to you.

"They won't think there's any point in asking him any questions. [Children like Teddy are] underestimated with their understanding."

Calls for funding

Earlier this year, the Royal College of Speech and Language therapists called on the government to fully fund the service in March's budget.

In February, chief executive Steve Jamieson said: “This must include public health and preventative work, including supporting children’s early language skills, as well as identifying and supporting hundreds of thousands of other people across England who communicate differently or with difficulty, or having eating, drinking, and swallowing difficulties.

“Timely access to speech and language therapy can transform lives – both in the short- and long-term. It reduces inequalities and provides long-term value to the economy.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said it was working to cut waiting times, which it described as "a priority".

"That’s why NHS England is taking action to ensure local systems improve community services waiting times, including reducing waits for children’s community services.

“The NHS Long Term Workforce Plan sets commitments to grow the community workforce, increasing training places for district nurses and allied health professionals, as well as a renewed focus on retaining our existing staff.

“We will improve access to speech and language therapy through the Change Programme in partnership with NHS England.”

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