The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman is warning that a national shortage of educational psychologists is having a ‘profound impact’ on children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and their families.
The shortage is causing significant delays for parents trying to get an Education, Health and Care (EHC) Plan put in place for their child.
Around 1,000 people waiting for an EHC needs assessment in Surrey alone
In a recent investigation of Surrey County Council, the Ombudsman found a backlog of around 1,000 EHC needs assessments awaiting input from an educational psychologist.
The investigation was sparked after the council was unable to produce an educational psychologist report for an autistic girl for 37 weeks. This should have only taken six weeks, but it took nine months for the council to issue the final EHC Plan.
Surrey County Council said the delay was caused by a national shortage of qualified psychologists and other key professionals who informed the EHC Plan process.
Delays to EHC Plans can cause extreme distress, and in this case, the girl (known as ‘K’) was unable to access education. K attended multiple taster days at mainstream schools despite the schools saying a placement would not work for her. K’s entire family has had counselling as a direct result of these delays.
Following an investigation, the council has agreed to apologise to the mother and pay her £1,000 for the injustice caused by its failings.
Surrey County Council says it will also prepare quarterly reports to its relevant committee, to ensure democratic oversight of its recovery plan and publish updates on its website, so those affected can track its progress.
Educational psychologists ‘cannot be trained overnight’
The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman is now calling for the government to implement the plans laid out in its SEND and Alternative Provision Plan “at pace” and with the appropriate funding.
Nigel Ellis, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman Chief Executive, said: “Sadly, the situation in Surrey is far from unique. We are increasingly seeing cases where, despite best efforts, councils do not have the specialist advisors they need to keep on top of caseloads.
“This crisis has been 10 years in the making; both councils and the government could have anticipated the issues and planned for the future, when the Children and Families Act was brought in and demand for EHC Plans started to increase.
“Educational Psychologists cannot be trained overnight and so this situation will not be resolved without significant input on a national scale.”
Mr Ellis says while he has “some sympathy” for the recruitment and retention problems councils are facing, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman will “find fault” when cases are outside the suggested timescales.
“The recent announcement of additional money for social care, particularly that to be focused on children, is a welcome development and could help councils to manage some of the pressures they face, but its use needs to be prioritised on the actions that will make a tangible difference: young people don’t have the time to wait.
“I welcome the efforts Surrey council has already made to reduce its waiting lists, however it should not have got to the stage it did before senior officers intervened,” he said.