The stereotype of the pearl-wearing elocution teacher has haunted the speech and language therapy profession since the BBC first decreed in 1922 that Standard English, or Received Pronunciation, should be the only accent to dominate the airways in the then brand new world of radio.
While speech therapy today has little to do with that relentless search, 80 years ago, for broadcasters with the obligatory "how now brown cow" lilt, it remains - like other health professions oriented largely towards children - highly female-oriented. As many as 97.9 per cent of the 8,292 members of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapy (RCSLT) currently in practice are female; which computes out at 8,122 women compared with a puny 170 men.
Among speech and language therapists (SLTs) under the age of 30, the figures are 2,137 female versus just 33 male. Even allowing for the fact that men tend to enter the profession later in life, often having tried other careers both inside and out of the Health Service, the RCSLT believes that the inequality of men and women of all ages in a field which already faces a marked skills gap now needs urgent attention.
In a bid to throw open its doors to a broader range of recruits, and to better reflect the diversity of the clients it serves in its own workforce, the RCSLT has recently developed a 10-year diversity strategy that aims to challenge the white, middle-class, female bias of speech and language therapy and bring fresh blood and new ideas to this fast-growing and important corner of the health landscape.
Recently the profession has adopted a more proactive media and PR strategy to raise the profile of the profession and a broader recruitment programme is already proving itself to be a partial answer. Specific targeting of children via stereotype-busting publications such as My Dad's a Speech and Language Therapist are also valuable. Work with schools and careers services is helping to increase awareness of speech therapy and interest in what an SLT does among the young, while the demand for wider access routes into the profession is being assessed through a survey into the demand for part-time SLT courses.
Close behind the gender gap is the ethnicity question and the UCAS survey finding that between 1996 and 2000, just 216 black, Asian and Chinese candidates applied to join the profession via a university course. Of the 6.3 per cent of the total applications pool who were from ethnic minorities, 16 per cent were accepted for courses, compared with 28 per cent of white applicants. While the RCSLT stresses that it does not have figures itself on the ethnic background of its practising therapists, anecdotal evidence suggests the profession is still resoundingly white.
In part, the call to diversity has come from the NHS itself and the recognition that a more diverse UK population needs a wider range of health services, delivered by a broader range of health professionals, to meet its needs in full. It also reflects the growing awareness of the demographic time- bomb and the realisation that an ageing population and fewer births means there will be correspondingly fewer people of "traditional" work age to recruit in the future.
Critically, the recruitment and retention of speech therapists in particular is already proving to be a problem at a time when the need for their services is rising fast. According to a 1999 study of vacancies, of the 276 SLT posts advertised that year, only 50 per cent were filled. In 33 per cent of cases, there were literally no applicants for the posts on offer. In some …