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Free psychologists from the fray;Another Voice;Opinion

ASK ANY governing body for their top three worries, and one will be the time it takes to get action on children who need statements of special educational need.

One common bottleneck, they will say, is to do with the role of the local authority educational psychologist, or EP. I use the word "role" quite deliberately, because I suspect that as individuals, EPs are as frustrated as the rest of us by what they have to do, which is, in many cases, simply to jump through a bureaucratic hoop and confirm the conclusions of the school, the authority's advisers and the child's parents.

The underlying assumption is that EPs are the top of the special needs tree, and that no one can be trusted to do anything significant without their say so. The position is analogous to that of a team of nurses, midwives or therapists having to stand around waiting for the green light from a doctor who may never have seen the patient before.

Unsurprisingly, governors and heads are increasingly questioning whether, at the end of the century, it still needs to be like this.

The point is that the educational world has changed beyond recognition since the world's first local authority educational psychologist was appointed by the London County Council in 1913. Then, and in the years that followed, there was growing faith in the ability of psychologists to assess children's ability by testing.

By 1950 there were in this country 155 EP-run "child guidance clinics", working with "dull" or "backward" children (not the same thing). Led by authoritative national figures such as Sir Cyril Burt, EPs became effectively the owners of all knowledge and expertise on the subject of learning difficulty.

Today, though, this central gatekeeping role looks increasingly untenable, a hangover from a time when teachers were non-graduate souls who were assumed not to know what made children tick, and when psychological testing was a driver - not least through its use in 11-plus testing of education policy. Now, Burt's books and testing manuals, once almost biblical in status, moulder in basements, and intelligence testing is known to have limited uses.

The EP's current role, I suggest, fails to acknowledge the way that special needs provision has developed in schools and local authorities in recent years. Every school now has a special needs co-ordinator - always, in my experience, a dedicated and knowledgeable professional. In addition, the local authority will have its own team of advisers and co-ordinators, all former teachers, or teachers on secondment, with a formidable amount of combined experience. Families, too, are considerably more clued-up than they were, with access to a range of support groups and agencies.

And yet all of these people can be in a position where their combined conclusions about the needs of a child might wait an unconscionable time in a pending tray awaiting a report from an EP who is running to keep up with a backlog of appointments, and whose sole contribution may be to administer and interpret a test. (The fact that there are published tests which only count as valid when administered by a person with two university degrees and a teaching diploma is not surprisingly a constant puzzle to the average school governor ).

The solution is probably not to abolish the local authority EP altogether - though you increasingly hear this, at least half seriously, from frustrated heads and governors. The EP is a highly-qualified professional, often with deep understanding of particular problems - dyslexia, attention deficit, and the multiple challenges found in special schools.

No, what I want is to remove them from the thick of the bureaucratic fray, and use them as consultants. Whether or not they need to see a child is a decision which a special educational needs co-ordinator is perfectly capable of taking, in consultation with the head, colleagues and the family.

To fill the gap - if it's felt that there is one - we could pull some experienced special needs teachers out of school and train them, partly in university, partly in a range of "centre of excellence" special schools and units.

Freed from routine and unnecessary work, the EPs could then do what they seem to have no time for now, which is to involve themselves in training teachers on whole- school learning issues, and in running programmes for authorities, schools and individuals that might prevent some special needs problems from starting in the first place.

I cannot believe that the EPs themselves would not welcome such a development.

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