The number of educational psychologists in Scotland has hit its lowest point in more than a decade, threatening the effectiveness of landmark reforms including Curriculum for Excellence, experts have warned.
Recruitment of new staff has been hit, with the number of professionals now at their lowest level since 2001, prompting fears that vulnerable children are missing out on the support they need.
New figures collected by the Association of Scottish Principal Educational Psychologists show that there were 388 full time-equivalent educational psychologists working in Scotland last year, a drop of 6 per cent on 2011's figure of 413.
In 2001, there were just 379 psychologists, a low point that prompted a major review of the service and the introduction of fully funded trainee places.
But last year the Scottish government scrapped bursaries of pound;49,000 over two years for trainees. The decision has been branded a mistake by directors of education, who say it will lead to shortages and a migration of talent into England, where training remains fully funded.
The move has already had an impact on applications to the universities of Dundee and Strathclyde, which run the MSc in educational psychology in alternate years.
Last year, applications to the University of Dundee course dropped, with more people withdrawing when it became clear that the Scottish government would not reverse its decision, according to programme director Beth Hannah.
Applications to the course at the University of Strathclyde, due to start in September, have dropped significantly, said programme director Professor James Boyle.
Alan Jones, chair of the Scottish Division of Educational Psychology, said: "It's a time bomb. If numbers on the courses decline, as seems likely, we are looking at a shortage of educational psychologists."
Educational psychology was crucial in realising the aspirations of major Scottish government policies including Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), Getting It Right For Every Child (Girfec) and the Additional Support for Learning Act, he said.
Educational psychologists were involved in everything from initiatives to improve learning and teaching under CfE to facilitating the joint working envisioned under Girfec, he said.
But it was children with additional support needs and their families who stood to suffer most if numbers in the profession kept falling, Mr Jones said.
The directors' body ADES agreed that scrapping funding for trainees was a mistake.
Bryan Kirkaldy, a senior education manager at Fife Council and former educational psychologist, said: "This decision will lead to shortfalls in educational psychologists and is likely to impact on outlying geographical areas first, introducing an inequality of access to psychology services for children in need."
Last month, TESS revealed that Highland Council was being forced to use retired psychologists, employed on temporary contracts, and trainees to keep its services going.
Rural authorities are experiencing problems in recruitment, a report to the council's adult and children's services committee revealed.
A Scottish government spokeswoman said: "The Scottish government is committed to ensuring that all children and young people with additional support needs get the necessary assistance to realise their full potential.
"While it is up to each local authority to identify and meet this demand, the Scottish government continues to monitor the delivery of this support through the Workforce Planning Group for Educational Psychology."
Photo credit: Eleanor Bentall
Original headline: Depleted ed psych services leave key reforms at risk