THE spectre of the post-McCrone settlement hung over a Stirling University seminar on Monday which was discussing the way forward for educational psychologists in Scotland. Their leaders warned of recruitment problems, the threat of privatisation and the prospect of industrial action.
The psychological service is being reviewed by a steering group chaired by Eleanor Currie, director of education in East Renfrewshire. It is due to report in October.
Mrs Currie said that the review faces the challenge of "embracing social inclusion while retaining professional integrity".
Tommy MacKay, of Psychology Consultancy Services, who is a consultant to the group, said educational psychology faced a staffing crisis which some parts of Scotland had experienced for a number of years.
Evidence suggests that Scotland has the best educational psychological service in the world but the review would have to display "considerable vision" if that place was to be maintained, Mr MacKay said. He called for psychological services to go beyond "the artificial barriers" of special educational needs to become involved in "fostering learning and raising achievement".
He said: "I look forward to the day when every educational, social and legislative barrier between normal and special is broken down and the role of the psychologist is for all of society. This is the way ahead. Scottish services are already recognised nationally and internationally as being at the forefront of developments in educational psychology.
"The next stage is for the review to have the vision which is necessary not just to maintain the position but to take it forward."
While there is an increasing need for psychological skills, other factors militate against effective delivery. Problems of recruitment and retention of staff need to be addressed. Responses from all 32 Scottish local authorities reveal that 20 psychologist posts are uncovered at any one time and that there is a shortfall of 24 full-time equivalent staff.
The Association of Scottish Principal Educational Psychologists (ASPEP) predicts an increasing shortfall in supply, worsening to 75 in the year 2015.
Twenty authorities reported problems with recruitment and 10 in remote areas faced extra difficulties. Mr MacKay pointed out that this will be exacerbated by the fact that more than a third of existing full-time posts - 150 out of 356 - are filled by psychologists aged 50 or over who will be retiring in the next few years. The profession is also affected by "attrition" to other disciplines, particularly to clinical psychology training at the postgraduate stage.
Ian Liddle, principal educational psychologist with Stirling Council and chair of the ASPEP, also highlighted the lure of teaching in the post-McCrone era. The failure so far to increase psychologists' salaries in line with those of teachers was "a major threat to maintaining good professional services", Mr Liddle warned.
"We rely heavily on the teaching profession for our supply of recruits. Current pay scales mean that a teacher would have to study for two years on a grant in order to secure a lower starting salary as a psychologist, with longer working hours and fewer holidays. This will produce a drift away from educational psychology back into teaching or into private practice.
"That is something the profession and the country cannot afford at a time when the scope for psychologists in education has never been wider or more promising."
The expansion in pre-five education, the Beattie committee's proposals for supporting vulnerable people up to the age of 24 and the introduction of a "universalist" approach as opposed to the present recording process all need to be addressed, Mr Liddle said. While local authorities were "a natural locus" for psychological services, alternative ways of providing them may have to be considered if these difficulties could not be resolved.
Nicol Stephen, Deputy Education Minister, said ministers are approaching the review with an open mind. "I want educational psychologists to feel confident that their ideas, views and aspirations are being taken into account," Mr Stephen said.
But he warned that there are no "quick and easy fixes". "We know there are difficulties in supply and demand. We know that some authorities, particularly rural ones, are having difficulty recruiting. We know what the problems are. What we need are solutions."