Virginia Beardshaw, Chief Executive of I CAN

I CAN CEO Virginia Beardshaw(1)We’re continuing our series of interviewing thought leaders in the disability focused part of the third sector (you can read our opening interview with Mark Lever here) . Today we’re very pleased to be interviewing the ever lovely Virginia Beardshaw, who is Chief Executive of I CAN, the children’s communication charity. Virginia was awarded an CBE this year in recognition of her tireless work and she was kind enough to make some time to answer my questions.


JR: So you’ve written on a wide range of issues related to disability, and it’s rare to find someone with such a strong research and policy focused background in a third sector leadership role – do you feel that you are using the same set of skills in your Chief Executive role? And have you plans for more writing in the future?

VB: When I completed the report of the King’s Fund’s first Commission on the future of health services in London I was drained. It was an immensely complex and politically sensitive piece of work. I definitely wanted to do something different. I also had the pious notion that I ought to pitch in and try to make some of the necessary changes happen.

So I entered the NHS at Director level – by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done careerwise. I got a few things done, but found NHS culture unappealing. When I had a chance to return to the voluntary sector to work with the wondrous Nick Young at the British Red Cross I grabbed it with both hands. This resulted in one of my career highs – being a tiny cog within the Red Cross movement as it responded to the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami.

At I CAN I’ve used my policy background and influencing skills to make it clear to decision makers that speech, language and communication skills are central to children’s life chances.

But being a CEO is completely inimical to being a writer – all the multitasking is too much of a distraction. Writing is undeniably still the most satisfying thing of all to do, though. I suppose I might get back to it one day, but at the moment I content myself with blogging.

JR: I CAN made some waves in early 2014 by setting up its own social enterprise to deliver training courses.  Can you talk us though why I CAN used that model and how been working out?

VB: In our former business model we had 90+ partnerships with Local Authorities running different I CAN programmes, which we were immensely proud of. But as austerity bit we could see the writing on the wall: Local Authorities were being hollowed out and budgets were being devolved to schools and early years settings. We had to make a shift which we termed ‘moving from wholesale to retail’.

We were immensely lucky to have a great deal of help from our friends at The Makaton Charity, since – with their full permission and active aid – we copied their business model and applied it to I CAN Programmes. We now have 600+ I CAN licensees which take our programmes out to schools and early years settings all over the country. Using licensing has greatly increased the numbers of children and families we can reach, and we also have a new source of unrestricted income.

JR: As Acevo vice-chair you have a wide lens for the sector as a whole – what are the changes in the landscape that you think should be getting more attention?

VB: I am surprised there has not been more attention paid to what are in fact the biggest changes to SEND legislation in a generation within the Children and Families Act 2014. This gives families an opportunity to influence and choose how their child’s needs are met. In addition to this, with Education, Health and Care Plans, this is the first concerted effort to bring together the different provisions to meet a child or young person’s complex needs.

I CAN has been deeply involved in responding to these changes, along with The Communication Trust, a Consortium of 50 not-for-profit organisations with an interest in children’s speech, language and communication, which we host.

To give an example of the SEND reforms; vast majority of families with children with special educational needs and disabilities will tell you that they face a dearth of information, advice and service choice. To change all this, later this month the SENDirect website will launch, aiming to provide a ‘Trip Advisor’ type service for children and young people with SEND and their families, so they can get the information and help they need.

The website is the fruit of a collaboration between nine charities. I CAN is a founder member. Charities don’t often work closely together on service development, so SENDirect is an unusual and welcome development. I am really excited by its potential to revolutionise the experience of children and young people with disabilities and their families for the better.

I hope this kind of collaboration becomes much more common. Charities have been asked to deliver more than ever before over the last 5 years but with reduced funding – we need to look at how the sector works with government and other partners so we can ‘restore and unleash the potential of our third sector’ . How to strengthen the sector with the election and potential change of government is a key question for ACEVO now.

JR: As a children focused-charity,  I CAN is well know for doing great work, but the perennial problem of children’s charities is always ‘what next’.  Does I CAN have a pathway for service users who reach adulthood and still have needs.

VB: Students at I CAN schools are supported carefully to move on to the right next stage for them, and we have good partnerships with other schools, colleges and employers. I CAN is exclusively a children’s charity but with the SEND reforms meaning that support for young people continues until they reach 25 years of age, this gives us opportunities to extend our work – one of the programmes we have developed and piloted over the last few years, for example, supports young people in developing the communication skills they need for the workplace and wider community.

JR:What are the big things you’ve got planned for the rest of 2015?

VB: 2015 promises to be as busy as the last! I CAN is developing two new interventions to support children aged 3-4 and 7-10 years old with delayed language and communication skills. These are being piloted at the moment.

This is based on our highly successful Talk Boost programme, which is being used with children aged 4-7 years old with delayed language in over 1000 primary schools across the country. We know that through this evidence-based programme, children can make between 12-18 months progress in their language skills, with many children no longer needing additional support.

This is life changing for children – meaning they can understand the language going on around them; they can learn at in the classroom and play with friends. So we are excited about the upcoming results of our pilots and rolling these programmes out across the UK.

In February we have our Chatterbox Challenge, our annual early years sing-along, where thousands of nurseries and other early years settings across the UK take part, developing their children’s communication skills whilst raising money for us. We really rely on donations to ensure we can continue our work – and we find that our supporters really love the Challenge and all hold unique events to help raise awareness and funds for us. We are extremely pleased to have the support of Entertainment One for another Chatterbox Challenge and a new partnership with Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom.

We continue to be proud of our two Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ schools, Meath in Surrey for children aged 4-11 and Dawn House in Nottinghamshire for children aged 5-19. Both continue to directly support children and their families with severe and complex communication needs.

And I CAN is a founder member of the Read On. Get On. campaign which has rightly emphasised the importance of early language development as the foundation of children’s literacy. July will see a big push around this, which we are very much engaged with already.

JR: So you have a long association with, and personal experience of disability – when you received your CBE this year, did it feel like the end of a long journey?

I am beyond thrilled to be appointed CBE in the New Year’s Honours List. It is a testament to the fantastic work that we have been able to do at I CAN. It has also been very humbling to receive so many congratulations and messages from friends and colleagues from across my career. And I am very excited to have been invited to Windsor Castleto receive the honour; the big dilemma there is, ‘to hat or not to hat’?

My journey at I CAN started in 2005 when we championed real change for children and their families – starting with our awareness raising campaign Make Chatter Matter, took us through the Bercow Review of services for children with speech and language needs in 2007/8 and has taken us through tothe emphasis on communication skills in the Children and Families Act 2014.

But to answer your question, there is still so much more to do. There are still over a million children in the UK today who struggle with their speech, language and communication. So we will be continuing our work to ensure their needs are understood and met: developing interventions to enable children with language delay to catch up with their peers; working with partners to ensure that policy makers understand about the importance of language and communication skills for children and young people; and making sure that children and families have the information and support they need to make useful – and sometimes difficult – choices in services to meet their needs.

Throughout it all I am guided by insights from my son Laurence – now aged 20. His struggles with language show me everyday how far we have to go, just as his many successes highlight the importance of helping every child gain the language skills they need to reach their potential.

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