Learning and Development

Keep SLC on top of the agenda

  • Keep SLC on top of the agenda

James Hempsall reflects on lessons learned in establishing TALK Derby – a speech, language and communication project funded by DfE Opportunity Areas…

At Hempsall’s over recent years we have been doing a lot more work that focuses on children’s speech, language and communication (SLC).

We’ve held seminars on closing the word gap, and we worked with Derby City Council to establish TALK Derby in 2019.

The phrase ‘word gap’ stemmed from iconic research in the US (Hart and Risley 1995). They found disadvantaged children heard a massive 30 million words fewer than their more advantaged peers.

A shocking finding, and something supported by a raft of other research since.

The findings weren’t just focused on quantity, the quality of communication was also important. SLC deficits are now proven to be powerful forces, holding back children’s life chances. We can all easily do more and this is what TALK Derby aims to do.

Come spring 2019, TALK Derby was born and a range of organisations came together to deliver.

We have bold ambitions to improve SLC skills in Derby. They make such a difference to children’s opportunities in their pre-school, school and later learning. And it benefits young people’s and adults’ employment potential and progress.

Hempsall’s was commissioned as coordinators, partnering up with Better Communication to support schools’ and settings’ systemic review through their Balanced System, Arch Communications for the delivery of a promotional campaign, and the Schools Development Support Agency for our Champions’ network meetings and website.

We established the programme, its brand and infrastructure, and were the glue that connected all elements together, including a large programme of Elklan training.

Time flew and challenges were many, even before COVID-19. Our delivery programme was packed full of outputs and performance measures. It’s right to be ambitious but sometimes the desire and drive to be busy can detract from the core business and impactful outcomes.

There was an urgency right from the outset to recruit and place practitioners onto training. We also needed to reach and secure relationships with 140 schools, settings and childminders who would nominate a Champion to drive practice development and programme engagement.

Termly network meetings brought them together to hear the latest progress, support motivation, be inspired and connect with others aiming for the same quality outcomes. We saw commitment and confidence grow and build exponentially especially after attending training.


After one network meeting one champion got in touch with us: “Thank you for all the courses and support. It’s fantastic to learn from people who feel as passionate about children’s communication as I do.

“Jan (Dubiel) was very inspirational so thank you for the talk, I will make my interactions count. Victoria (Riley-Hill) has given me the drive to keep pushing forward and analysing good practice.

“The Elklan courses have given me confidence to share good practice with my setting and motivated me to be even more determined to engage with our parents. I am so aware of not asking too many questions and making sure I comment and give processing time. I am more aware of letting children lead the way and not afraid to let them lead.”

We were thrilled to receive such feedback. Throughout the programme there was great support, even by the time of the official launch in September 2019, we had secured local political, community and business employer backing, alongside a growing number of champions.

Pledge makers committed to doing more for children’s SLC in their day-to-day lives, and Ambassadors became city-wide advocates for the programme in their work.

When COVID-19 happened in March 2020 much of our ambitions were curtailed, especially the development and field work for which we had laid strong foundations. We did whatever we could remotely and all the training moved to online platforms.

Online training has its advantages and drawbacks. But it was important we all carried on. Childminders told us they found it particularly beneficial to switch to online training.


Our advisory board was invaluable by offering advice and information to help us do what we could in a short space of time, as Janet Cooper, Clinical Lead Speech/Language Therapist at the long-established Stoke Speaks Out!, said:

“Talk Derby has been successful in drawing together expertise around early SLC needs and ensuring focussed initiatives in this area have joined together. The project has quickly established a ‘buzz’ around early communication and given practitioners a voice to share their good practice and to access further support. I am hopeful that this will be the catalyst for continued focus on this much needed topic and will become firmly embedded across Derby.”

We have now handed over the baton to Derby City Council to continue the work and further integrate it into local authority strategy. We have learned a lot and there are some key things for everyone to note:

  • SLC is core to all our practice and we all do so much to contribute to this issue already.
  • It helps to have a specific focus and a visible lead person with responsibility for this area of work. Whether this is a SLC Champion in a setting or a manager in a local authority. These roles can hold onto the necessary tasks with the capacity and capability to achieve practical application and leadership and achieve full engagement from colleagues and to reach parents as well.
  • Keeping SLC on top of the agenda is vital and keeping in regular touch with developments and opportunities through regular networks and training that helps ensure a greater future legacy for the awareness raised and confidence built.

Find out more about TALK Derby at talkderby.org.uk.

James Hempsall OBE is director of Hempsall’s training, research and consultancy. Visit hempsalls.com or follow on Twitter at @hempsalls.