Communication is difficult for Harry Davie, but regular work with a speech therapist at his school has provided a lifeline to overcome some of the frustration and confusion of life with Down’s Syndrome.

But Harry, 11, and thousands of children in Aberdeenshire with similar communication difficulties are about to lose that lifeline.

Aberdeenshire Council recently voted to cut speech therapy from schools and nurseries, despite an internal impact assessment which found zero positive impacts associated with the decision.

According to the council document, removing the NHS Grampian Speech and Language Therapy Service Level Agreement (SLA) from schools will cause "a reduction in the capacity of the Speech & Language Therapy Service to support schools".

It added: "This may have a negative impact on the learning and development, attainment and achievement of children" with speech and language therapy needs.

Harry’s mum Fiona and dad Paul labelled the decision “incomprehensible” and “short-sighted”, saying that regular access to a therapist at school has provided crucial support for both Harry and his teachers.

Without foundational speech skills, children will grow up vulnerable to a host of other difficulties, Fiona said.

“They’re taking away a basic right. Children – all people – need to be able to communicate.

“We’re about to have a generation of kids who are not going to have the speech and language abilities they need. They might need other treatments, benefits, or more as adults.

“It’s going to cost councils so much more in the long run.

“This is a really short-sighted thing to have done. I just don’t understand – it’s incomprehensible.”

The Herald: Harry Davie, centre, with his mum Fiona and dad Paul. Using a special pad given to him by his speech and language therapist, Harry can communicate more easily with his parents.Harry Davie, centre, with his mum Fiona and dad Paul. Using a special pad given to him by his speech and language therapist, Harry can communicate more easily with his parents. (Image: Paul Davie)

The Davies are fighting the council’s decision, which they say deprives children of a “fundamental human right” to communication.

They launched a petition to reverse the council’s decision that has already gathered almost 4,000 signatures in a week.

Read more: Parents petition to reverse council defunding of speech therapy

Glenn Carter, chief of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT) in Scotland, is also in the parents’ camp.

Before the council’s crunch budget meeting, he submitted an open letter to the council urging them to abandon the planned cuts.

When the council finally convened on February 22 to plug a gaping £35.45 million hole in their budget, he was outside the council chambers hoping to make his case in person.

But councillors denied Mr Carter entry, to the disappointment of parent groups who had also turned up to express disappointment in the planned cuts.

Ultimately, the council voted in favour of a budget that included a broad range of cuts to education services: all school crossing guards and some janitorial positions were cut; new-build school projects in Fraserburgh and Stonehaven were delayed; kitchens in some of the council’s smaller schools were closed, catering staff lost their free lunches and the council introduced “dynamic pricing” to school meals, meaning any rise in the cost of ingredients will come out of students’ pockets.

But it was a decision to remove speech therapy services from schools and nurseries which Mr Carter and concerned parents warn could have the most damaging consequences.  

The Herald: Glenn Carter, head of RCSLT Scotland, is backing parents in their fight to get speech and language therapy back in schools.Glenn Carter, head of RCSLT Scotland, is backing parents in their fight to get speech and language therapy back in schools. (Image: Morrison Media)

Speaking to The Herald in the wake of the decision the model of delivering speech therapy to children in “isolated” clinical settings outside of schools “doesn’t work”.

“You can’t meet the needs of children with communication issues in isolation. It isn’t a one-service job.”

This is part of the reason why Mr Carter said that having access to speech therapy on school grounds and within the school environment is so important.

"Not only does it help to make treatments more effective by giving students a sense of continuity between lessons and therapy, but it helps teachers to be a part of the solutions for every child."

Read more: Politicians axe keystone education programmes

Without therapists in schools, children are shuttled in and out of school for separate therapy sessions, or speech experts are parachuted into the school to provide support.

All of this can be effective, he said, but it takes a toll on children, on families, on teachers and it creates pressure on a system that is already stretched to breaking.

“Taking the child to see a speech and language therapist at a clinic and putting them back into school: that’s not going to work.

“I’ve worked as a speech and language therapist for 23 years, and by far the biggest impact happens in schools.

“That’s why you need therapists working side-by-side with teachers or nursery workers.

“Children with communication difficulties struggle to learn, they struggle to make friends in class. This can lead to mental health or behavioural issues.”

Read more: Long waits for 'fundamental' speech therapy as pupils receiving support triples

It's unclear exactly what therapy will look like in Aberdeenshire going forward.

A council spokesperson said that students with identified needs will continue to receive appointments, but "the full scope of how community SLT (speech and language therapy) services will be delivered is still to be decided".

In addition to practical concerns for the effectiveness of treatment, Mr Carter questions how children will access services.

By taking therapists out of schools, equal access becomes an issue, he said.

“It is going to impact kids living in poverty more than other children because we know that those kids tend not to have easy access to services.”

This is the case for a variety of reasons: clinics may not be located in high-poverty areas and the costs (in terms of time and money) of transportation may be unaffordable.

The Herald: Communication skills are essential for Harry Davie, who lives with Down's Syndrome, to enjoy a full life with his parents.Communication skills are essential for Harry Davie, who lives with Down's Syndrome, to enjoy a full life with his parents. (Image: Paul Davie)

A recent report from RCSLT Scotland found that equal access to speech and language therapy is already a problem in Scotland.

More than half of the children from Scotland’s most deprived areas enter school with inadequate communication skills.

According to the same RCSLT report, there are over 6,500 Scottish children with diagnosed communication needs who are still waiting for their first meeting with a therapist.

The longest wait times stretch beyond one year, while the number of pupils in need of services has doubled since 2013 and continues to grow.

Aberdeenshire has the benefit of lower average wait times than many other local authorities, Mr Carter said, but that could change.

As reported in The Press & Journal, cutting speech therapy from schools and nurseries leaves another 6,000 young people without immediate access to the care that they need.

For Harry Davie and others like him, this means a future of uncertainty.

His mother, Fiona, called this unacceptable.

"There will be an extra cost with all of this. We're lucky to be able to take Harry to speech therapy, but that won't be the case for everyone.

"This is impacting the most vulnerable people, children with additional needs and disabilities.

"This is the time to be putting more resources into this and not taking away from children."

A spokesperson for Aberdeenshire Council said that teachers and early years staff will continue receiving professional development to learn how to meet the needs of pupils with speech and language needs, while also claiming that the policy change will not add to teachers' workloads.

"In addition, we continue to roll out of the CIRCLE framework to support inclusive classroom practice.

"The CIRCLE framework is a way of organising and supporting pupils and helps teachers identify and anticipate pupils’ additional support needs and implement practical strategies to support the underlying skills that pupils require to enable them to participate in school."

Despite this, the council has not decided exactly how young people will access therapy services, or what support will be available to parents who may need to miss work, or students who will need to miss school to attend therapy.