Urgent government action is required to counter a "desperate" shortage of educational psychologists which is threatening to undermine the new Code of Practice for special needs.
Local education authorities are advertising for additional staff, but the posts remain empty because of low salaries and a lack of government training money, the British Psychological Society said last week at the annual conference of its division of educational and child psychology in York.
Psychologists are expected to play a central role in implementing the Code of Practice which, it is hoped, will encourage schools to identify children's needs at an early stage. Local education authorities and the society believe that without additional professional help, schools and their more vulnerable pupils will be hamstrung.
Professor Geoff Lindsay, the society's vice president, who described the shortage as desperate, said a post in Sheffield attracted only one applicant, .
Professor Lindsay criticised the low pay rates awarded to educational psychologists which, he said, were now substantially below those of clinical psychologists working in the health service.
Some teachers who have completed the extra year's training to be an educational psychologist are choosing to work as teachers once more. "The figures suggest people are leaving the profession," he said.
Ingrid Lunt, chair of the society's professional affairs board and course director for educational psychology at London's Institute of Education, said: "There is an enormous number of vacancies."
She said the profession was ageing and the number of retirements would continue to increase. There are also additional posts to fill because of the Code of Practice.
Councils have attempted to help the situation by ensuring that every LEA contributes training money to a central training fund.
However the lack of council and central government grant left trainees paying for themselves, Ms Lunt said: "This is in part a numbers issue. But in particular it's an issue of quality. EPs have a lot to contribute to the Code of Practice, not only in terms of formal assessment, but at the stages before that. We do need to have the highest quality people in the profession."
The conference also heard that rogue educational psychologists will be barred from professional practice if a new parliamentary Bill drawn up by the BPS is passed.
There is at present no official definition of a psychologist. Anyone can operate under the title without formal qualifications and many do, including a number of private consultants in the education field.
Under the proposed Bill, drawn up after consultation with the Government, anyone calling themselves a psychologist would have to be on an official register.
Professor Lindsay confirmed that regular complaints were received about private educational psychologists and their professional competence. As things stand, however, there are no effective sanctions.
Professor Lindsay, who works at Warwick University's Institute of Education, said: "The society has been getting more than a hundred complaints a year about clinical and educational psychologists." He said that most complaints were from local authority staff angry at the activities of private operators, particularly in fields such as dyslexia.
The Bill, which still requires a parliamentary sponsor, would make it an offence for anyone to hire themselves out as a psychologist, unless they are appropriately qualified and officially registered.
The BPS, which has 23,000 members, may attempt to introduce the Bill in the Lords later this year. Nationally there are some 18,000 educational psychologists.