The shortage of educational psychologists (EP) is having a “significant impact” on councils’ ability to meet SEND needs, the council ombudsman has warned.
The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman said an investigation into a Surrey girl’s nine-month wait to receive additional learning support exposed a backlog of about 1,000 needs assessments awaiting input from an EP.
EPs play a fundamental role in assessing the needs of children with special educational needs and disabilities for educational, health and care plans (EHCP).
LGSCO said the council blamed a national shortage of qualified psychologists and other key professionals who informed the EHCP process.
Nigel Ellis, ombudsman chief executive, said the situation is “far from unique” and they are “increasingly seeing cases where, despite best efforts, councils do not have the specialist advisors they need to keep on top of caseloads”.
In the family’s case, there was a 37-week delay to produce an EP report – which should have only taken six. The delay for a plan to be issued overall was nine months.
The girl, diagnosed with autism, was “left distressed” attending taster days at mainstream schools, despite the schools saying a placement would not work for her.
The whole family had counselling as a direct result of the delay. The council has agreed to apologise and pay her £1,000 for the injustice caused by its failings.
EPs in ‘vicious cycle’
Surrey told investigators that their core EP service staffing level was at just half of what was required. But they had seen a 64 per cent increase in referrals since 2020.
LGSCO said it had seen an increase in complaints about Surrey and several other councils’ delays in EP assessments.
Surrey has also agreed to report quarterly to councillors on its EHCP recovery plan and publish updates on its website for families to track.
Analysis by Schools Week last year estimated there were 360 fewer full-time equivalent EPs compared to 2010. A government report found EPs were locked in a “vicious cycle” that was preventing early intervention work.
Government is funding training for more EPs, but Ellis said they “cannot be trained overnight and so this situation will not be resolved without significant input on a national scale.”
“I welcome the efforts Surrey council has already made to reduce its waiting lists, however it should not have got to the stage it did before senior officers intervened.”
Members of the Association of Educational Psychologists (AEP) went on strike for the first time in decades last year over pay and conditions.
Cllr Clare Curran, Surrey’s children lead, apologised and said: “We are doing our utmost to recruit more to meet this demand, and we are filling this gap as best we can.
“We have already been able to halve the backlog of EP advices through the steps we’ve taken locally, but we hope to see the national shortage in trained EPs and other issues addressed soon through the government’s improvement plan.”