Educational psychologists say the “constant cycle of not being able to do enough” amid spiralling workloads and funding shortfalls leaves schools without support and leads to unnecessary exclusions.
Members of the Association of Educational Psychologists (AEP) went on strike for the first time in decades on Wednesday after voting in favour of industrial action over last year’s pay offer, a rise of £1,925 that averaged 3 per cent.
Psychologists play a fundamental role in assessing the needs of children with SEND. But their numbers are falling as the requests for education, health and care plan (EHCP) assessments soar, up 77.3 per cent since 2017.
Schools Week analysis of local authority data estimates there are 360 fewer full-time EPs compared with 2010.
‘It’s all just going to crumble’
Speaking at a rally in London, Susan Moore, an EP in south London, said her practice had “definitely been compromised. Instead of maybe spending hours with a child, family and school staff, I’m trying to squeeze it in… that leaves me feeling uncomfortable.”
Moore said EPs were “spread thinly” and were called in at “crisis point” after children had been excluded or were refusing to attend school.
“One school gets eight visits a year from me … six years ago that was probably more like 20. But it means the school is trying to prioritise who gets seen. One boy was showing early signs, with some emotional dysregulation, but he was nowhere near the top of the list.”
He was sent to a pupil referral unit, then permanently excluded after making “unsafe choices. We don’t know what his pathway now is at all,” she said.
“It’s just the constant cycle of not being able to do enough or not being able to do it well, but getting more to do. That gap just gets bigger. At some point it’s going to crumble. I see colleagues in tears, overwhelmed, asking for reductions in workloads. It’s endless.”
Grazielle Carvalho Gomes, an EP in north London, told of a similar case where a child wasn’t prioritised because the school could not afford the hours.
“So that child ended up having a permanent exclusion and was seen in the PRU when things had become quite complex.
“If you had picked up that case and done early intervention, you would have been so much more impactful and could have prevented that exclusion.”
James Redburn, an EP in north London, said a school asked him to meet with a boy who had been excluded.
“I went to his house, listened … and tried to understand his perspective. The family told me afterwards that was the first time anybody had ever done that.
“Schools may think it’s all down to poor behaviour and not understand that they’ve got a learning or communication need.”
‘We’re just firefighting’
Ministers hope their SEND reforms will allow early intervention. But EPs told Schools Week they were simply “firefighting”.
Jean Carnochan, an EP in Wiltshire, said: “There’s a huge backlog of EHCP assessments and that’s dominating our work. It means we can’t do any of the preventive work that we’d really like to do.”
A government research report on the work of EPs found them locked in a “vicious cycle” with soaring demand for EHCPs preventing early intervention.
An improved pay offer was put forward by the Local Government Association (LGA) in September, equating to a pay increase of between 5 to 9 per cent. But it was withdrawn weeks later. The union wants a 9 per cent rise.
Cath Lowther, the general secretary of the AEP, said the recruitment crisis had led to “spiralling workloads and long wait times for children, young people and families who need support”.
Many EPs left their local authority workforce or moved to locum or private work.
A spokesperson for the employers’ side of the Soulbury Committee, administered by the LGA said financial challenges made it impossible to agree to all of the AEP’s pay demands.
“Nevertheless, the national employers have committed to continuing dialogue with the Soulbury unions to reach an affordable resolution to this dispute as soon as possible.”