The long and desperate wait for help

4th October 1996 at 01:00
Between 1993 and 1994 Manchester City Council, facing severe cash restraints and wishing above all to protect school budgets, cut spending on its educational psychology service by 20 per cent. Unsurprisingly, this led to a crisis of confidence.

The subject of 18 Local Government Ombudsman's reports for special educational needs cases, including "maladministration causing injustice" during 1995 and 1996, the council was ordered to pay a total of nearly Pounds 6,000 in compensation for six of them.

In further reports the Ombudsman commented on the poor state of a service where only six educational psychologists serviced the authority's schools of 130,000 pupils and where 350 warranted assessments but still had not been seen.

In a case last month where a child with a statement for dyslexia was on a waiting list for provision, Manchester admitted to the Ombudsman that it was in breach of statutory duty.

Maria Heffernan, chief educational psychologist for Manchester, has defended the hard-pressed council and states that there are in fact 18 psychologists in the service, including two new posts created in the past two years, looking at different areas of need. These include day nurseries and children's centres; teacher training on implementation of the Code of Practice; annual review of statements. She says there are now seven psychologists attending to direct referrals from schools, though this cannot hide the fact that the service is severely stretched.

In Northamptonshire, for example, there are 27.5 educational psychologists serving 97,000 children, 22 of these providing a direct service to schools.

Manchester is the second most deprived authority in Britain, leading to enormous unmet need, according to Phil Taylor, headteacher of South Manchester High School and city convener of the Secondary Heads Association.

He said: "You can refer somebody in Year 7 and you are lucky if you access support by Year 11. Unless things are really desperate the need will never be met. Many children are coming to our school with severe reading difficulties - some have reading ages below seven - and we are not alone in that. Appearances from educational psychologists are rare, once a term is common. The point of assessment is to offer diagnosis and treatment but assessments only underline the fact that at the end of the process provision isn't there."

In his school of 470, set in the middle of a large municipal housing estate in Wythenshawe where there is high unemployment and poverty-related sickness, Mr Taylor believes up to 50 per cent of pupils have some kind of special need. He said: "I might have 80-130 children needing outside help and the educational psychologist will come in and ask me to prioritise. The situation is farcical. They might only have time for one. But even if they could deal with more it's no good having psychologists' time if they cannot steer us towards resources. "

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