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News: Local Government Ombudsman warns about national shortage of educational psychologists

The Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) has issued a warning highlighting that a shortage of educational psychologists is having a significant impact on councils being able to understand and meet the needs of children with special educational needs.

Originally investigating an individual case, the Ombudsman found a 37 week delay in a statutory EP report being provided as part of the Education, Health and Care Needs Assessment process. The Chief Executive of the LGO however was clear that the situation in this one Local Authority was not unique, citing shortages of EPs, nationally.

This crisis has been 10 years in the making; both councils and the government could have anticipated the issues and planned for the future, when the Children and Families Act was brought in and demand for EHC Plans started to increase. Educational Psychologists cannot be trained overnight and so this situation will not be resolved without significant input on a national scale

Nigel Ellis, LGO Chief Executive, 1st February 2024

Recruitment, retention and the vicious cycle

Local authorities around the country continue to experience significant issues in EP team capacity. This was a main finding from the recent EP Workforce research project (Atfield et al, 2023, pg. 32):

  • “The majority of local authority PEPs (88%) reported that they were experiencing difficulties recruiting staff and that this was a consistent issue”
  • “Overall, 34% of local authority PEPs reported that they were experiencing retention issues. Respondents suggested that this was related to the high proportion of time EPs were spending on statutory work and the opportunity to do more varied work in private practice.”

Crucially the authors of this report addressed both supply and demand side issues, suggesting that supply-side remedies in isolation are unlikely to comprehensively and sustainably address Local Authority EP service capacity issues. The authors explicitly considered the impact of high EHCP workloads on EP staffing in local authorities.

Demand for statutory work, and the timescales they were required to meet, meant that statutory work needed to be prioritised. This provided an incentive for EPs to move out of local authority work into private practice in search of more diverse, less stressful work…As EPs moved out of local authority work, and the local authorities struggled to recruit replacements, those remaining had to take on more statutory work because completing statutory work had to be prioritised. This further reduced job satisfaction amongst this group and increased the risk that they too would leave the local authority.

Atfield et al, 2023, pg. 106

An education system that meets needs

We spoke to Dr Cath Lowther, General Secretary of the Association of Educational Psychologists, who was keen to highlight that this is an interconnected issue, linked to a reduction in early intervention, a narrowing curriculum, and a focus on standards over wellbeing.

That there aren’t enough EPs to respond to the extraordinary demands for EHCPs is a given. But much more attention needs to be given to how shortages of EPs seriously curtail our capacity to intervene early and help schools to offer preventative support. This then creates increasing pressures downstream, adding to children and young people’s distress.

The focus on what is failing within SEND detracts from the failure that is the wider education system. An incredibly narrow curriculum and a focus on standards over wellbeing is disabling too many of our children and young people. To address Special Educational Needs we need to make our system inclusive of all and to prioritise supporting children and young people, whatever their needs.

To address the current SEND crisis, the government needs to train even more EPs. But more fundamentally, our education system needs an overhaul so that all individuals’ needs being consistently and rapidly met is viewed as ordinary rather than special.

Dr Cath Lowther, General Secretary, AEP

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