A service cracks under the strain

Educational psychologists are at the sharp end of social problems affecting schools. Elaine Williams reports on their plight. Behind every sensational story about teachers refusing to teach an aggressive and difficult pupil and parents withdrawing their children there'll be an educational psychologist somewhere in the background trying to find solutions to an increasing and intractable problem.

Heather DuQuesnay, president of the Society of Education Officers, readily admits that the educational psychology service has become the dumping ground for a range of school management issues. The growth in numbers of children with behavioural difficulties reflected in the sharp rise in statements of special need for emotional disorder and the dramatic rise in exclusions - 3,833 in 1991-92 rising to 10,624 in 1993-94 according to Department for Education and Employment statistics - place increasing demands on an understaffed and overstretched service cracking under the strain.

In many respects the educational psychology service was never designed for the work it now has to do. Up until the 1990s, educational psychologists would typically have spent 50 per cent of their time working with children identified early as having learning difficulties and 50 per cent engaged in preventive work giving more general advice to teachers on behavioural management, for example. Few educational psychologists do any preventive work these days, bound up as they are in the process of assessment for statements, sorting out the mess once a school decides it can no longer cope with a child within its present resources.

The 1978 Warnock report stated that although 20 per cent of schoolchildren were likely to require some form of special needs help, only 2 per cent of children would require statements of special educational need. Since the 1988 Education Act, referrals have risen sharply and there are many authorities carrying over 4 per cent of statemented children. Department of Health statistics reveal there has been a 25 per cent rise in children needing psychiatric help between 1986 and 1991. Educational psychologists believe many needy children are being denied help because formal assessment of a tiny minority of pupils is taking up more and more of their time.

Moreover, the statutory requirement enshrined in the 1994 Code of Practice on the Identification and Assessment of Special Educational Needs that statements be processed within six months has placed unbearable pressure on the service. In reality few statements are processed within that time.

The Audit Commission report on local government performance indicators that was published in March revealed that the metropolitan authorities were preparing only 24 per cent of statements within six months. The London boroughs' figure was 29 per cent, and the county councils' 41 per cent.

But an authority showing undue delay risks being taken to the special educational needs tribunal and having to pay compensation. Teachers faced with increasing class sizes as well as demands of the national curriculum are less able or willing to cope with the problems presented by these growing numbers of children. Educational psychologists are expected to pick up the pieces and act as gatekeeper to extra resources from the LEA, though in reality the profession is ill-equipped to do so. A 40-hour week is the norm in the service and many educational psychologists work 60 hours, with up to 20 per cent of them failing to take all their annual leave, according to Brian Harrison-Jennings, general secretary of the Association of Educational Psychologists (AEP). Severe staff shortages are widespread, with two out of three local education authorities operating without a full team. The creation of new unitary authorities has produced further vacancies.

Manchester City Council is advertising a post for a second time because the first advertisement attracted no candidates. Recent ads from Cumbria and Cornwall attracted only two responses each. Cover for maternity leave, long-term sickness or secondment is virtually non-existent.

Warnock recommended one educational psychologist for every 5,000 children. In many authorities the ratio is considerably worse, though they are reluctant to increase the size of their establishment either because of cash shortages or because they cannot fill the vacancies that already exist. "We cannot fill the 89 posts we have got this year," said Mr Harrison-Jennings.

Increasing numbers of educational psychologists are taking early retirement, going back into schools as teachers or special educational needs co-ordinators (SENCOs) where there is less frustration, more holidays and often better pay. Under Burnham salary structures, principal educational psychologists expected to be paid the same as headteachers, but when Burnham was disbanded pay slipped behind. Significant numbers are also moving into clinical psychology. Walsall Health Authority has been seeking to advertise in AEP literature to offer retraining for educational psychologists. Derek Lucas, past president of the AEP and principal educational psychologist for Northamptonshire, spelt out the attraction. He said: "A consultant clinical psychologist will be paid around Pounds 43,000 with about four people under him. I am paid considerably less than that with 110 people under me."

In addition, insufficient numbers are being trained to make up for the shortfall. Although 120 training places are offered each year for the one-year Master's course for teachers seconded from LEAs and although there is no shortage of applicants, there are insufficient funds to fill these places. In past years money has been mainly provided through Grants for Educational Support and Training funding from central Government, but as this fell from 100 to 60 per cent LEAs were faced with finding the remaining 40 per cent themselves, which some failed to do. Courses which had once selected the best applicants were increasingly having to take students simply because they could pay their own way.

According to the AEP, 50 per cent of students were self-funding, with an ensuing loss in quality. This year, although funding arrangements have changed, the Government top-slicing Pounds 2.75 million from its revenue support grant to ensure places offered can be taken up, it is still only enough to fill 86 places. All of this leads to terrible tensions and frustrations in school. Surveys of heads show that they are largely happy with the quality of work by educational psychologists, but unhappy with the amount of time they are getting. Professor Geoff Lindsay, director of Warwick's special needs research unit, said psychologists would formerly have had time to work with teachers early on to prevent a child from getting to the point of needing a statement. He said: "The future of the service must be to develop more informal work. "

A Coopers Lybrand report called The SEN initiative - managing budgets for pupils with special educational needs, commissioned by the Society of Education Officers for a consortium of 59 local authorities, supports this analysis.

Highlighting the local authorities' view that there is a shortage of educational psychologists and difficulties in releasing them from statutory work into prevention, it nevertheless offers strategies for improvement. One is to set the ceiling on the amount of formal assessment educational psychologists do and to review how they spend their time so that bureaucratic commitments outside of school or casework can be delegated. It suggests that authorities could sponsor their own trainees on the understanding that they would stay with the authority for a number of years afterwards or pay back the costs.

LEAs would also offer a part-time route for teachers wanting to become educational psychologists. Any moves to prioritise workloads and lessen shortages are bound to be welcomed by a profession that sees itself stretched all ways.

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