Schools are being charged hundreds of pounds a day to access much-needed educational psychologists who were once free, with rising costs leaving children unable to access support.
Before funding cuts from 2010, almost every local authority employed an educational psychologist (EP) team “free at the point of delivery” to schools said Kate Fallon, general secretary of trade union the Association of Educational Psychologists.
This covered both statutory assessments and preventative work.
We’re just firefighting the top five per cent of emergency cases, it’s just making the other cases worse and worse
But freedom of information requests by Schools Week show 30 of the 49 councils who responded and once offered EPs for free now charge for their services.
Fallon said slashed budgets led many local authorities to either reduce their EP team or become a “traded” service that schools could pay for.
EPs input on Education, Health and Care Plans (ECHPs) for pupils, deliver school interventions and support staff.
In Staffordshire, all 400 schools had used the council’s EP service in 2009-10 until a £100 per hour charge was introduced. By 2019-20, that number had almost halved to just 228 schools.
However, when the council returned to charging nothing for its EP service last year, the number of schools accessing support returned to 400.
Two in three councils increase charges
Jonathan Price, cabinet member for education, said the decision “was a direct response to help staff, pupils and parents through the pandemic”, adding “there was strong demand for the support available”.
Staffordshire is one of only two councils that responded to our request that had dropped their fees.
Two-thirds of the councils had increased EP charges since 2018-19, with the rest keeping fees the same.
But there are big regional differences.
Nineteen local authorities are offering only daily fees – requiring schools to fork out anywhere from £230 in the Wirral to £605 in Southampton for an EP visit.
Meanwhile, the average hourly charge across councils was £89. But this ranged from £25 per hour in Plymouth to £140 in Birmingham.
Academy trusts are increasingly using bought-in educational psychology time, but some say this is unaffordable with waiting lists too long.
Pupils can ‘fall through the cracks’
Raquel Avila, an educational psychologist in a non-traded service in south Yorkshire, said some pupils “can fall through the cracks” with private support.
“If I deem it necessary for a member of my team to support a young person, we would not need the permission of the school to do it,” she said. “But if you are in a traded service, you have to wait for the school to request you to go in, because the school pays you.”
Another problem for councils is recruiting psychologists. Rise in demand for statutory EHCP assessments – up from 55,000 in 2016 to nearly 76,000 in 2020 – is driving some to private or locum work which can be less stressful and pay more, experts said.
The government pledged £31.6 million in 2019 for an additional 600 EP training places, but this needed to be matched by “more money so local authorities can employ them”, Fallon said.
Our data shows that 78 per cent of 91 LAs who provided figures had at least one EP vacancy in 2020-21.
The Howard Partnership Trust said 20 pupils across its 13 schools were waiting to see an EP.
Jo, an educational psychologist in south London, added: “In areas where we’re just firefighting the top five per cent of emergency cases, it’s just making the other cases worse and worse.”