Northern Ireland

North’s children face communication crisis over lack of speech and language therapists

Number of children awaiting appointments are spiralling as posts remain vacant, figures show

Speech and language therapy can improve outcomes for children into their adult lives
Speech and language therapy services are under critical pressure in the north.

The north is facing an early years communication crisis as an increasing number of young children are unable to get speech and language therapy appointments, it has ben warned.

New figures from the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT) show there were 4,527 children waiting for appointments in 2023, an 85% increase compared to 2021.

The RCSLT also highlighted a workforce shortage, with one-in-five NHS speech and language therapy posts in the north unfilled, and almost a third of posts vacant in some services.

They said there had been a rise in the number of children coming into pre-school and P1 with more complex speech and language needs, requiring longer and more intensive support from therapists.

Early years communication issues can have a lifelong impact on children, affecting their ability to learn, make friends, and in later years find employment.

The RCSLT has urged Stormont’s health minister Robin Swann to fund more speech therapist undergraduate places to help tackle the crisis.

RCSLT head in Northern Ireland, Ruth Sedgewick, said: “Speech and language therapy is not a luxury – it’s about our fundamental ability to communicate.

Ruth Sedgewick, head of the NI office of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists
Ruth Sedgewick, head of the NI office of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists.

“There are more children in Northern Ireland waiting for speech and language therapy per head of the population than in any other region of the UK.

“Families are facing long, frustrating waits for speech therapy at this crucial stage of their children’s development. They have every right to be concerned.

“Speech and language therapists are doing their level best to support the increasing number of children being referred to them, but they are stretched far beyond capacity.”

Ms Sedgewick said plans by Mr Swann to increase the number of undergraduate places from 28 to 40 “would only be a start”.

“We urge the Department of Health to work much more closely with the Department of Education to improve access to speech, language and communication support for every single child who needs it now,” she added.

“This is an issue with far-reaching impacts for every part of Northern Ireland’s economic and community life. Without more speech and language therapists and better workforce planning, this situation is not going to get any better.”

The Department of Health said the minister remained committed to implementing the recommendations of the Speech and Language Therapy Workforce Review 2019 to 2029.

“This will require increasing the number of undergraduate speech and language therapy training places commissioned by the department each year by 12, to reach the recommendation of 40 places,” a spokesman said.

“Any proposed increases will have to be considered in the context of the very challenging financial situation facing the department and the many competing priorities.”