National specialist shortage having profound impact on children with SEND and their families

The shortage of educational psychologists is having a significant impact on councils’ ability to set out the needs of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has said.

The Ombudsman is highlighting the recruitment difficulties faced by councils in a report on a complaint from a Surrey family who experienced significant delays trying to get an Education, Health and Care (EHC) Plan put in place for their autistic daughter.

During the Ombudsman’s investigation, Surrey County Council said it had a backlog of around 1,000 EHC needs assessments awaiting input from an educational psychologist. The council blamed a national shortage of qualified psychologists and other key professionals who informed the EHC Plan process.

In this family’s case, there was a delay of 37 weeks to produce an educational psychologist report for the girl, where it should have only taken six, and a total delay of nine months to issue the girl’s final plan.

The delay caused the family frustration and the girl was left distressed attending taster day sessions at schools she felt were not suitable for her.

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. The focus on Educational Psychologist training in the Government’s SEND and Alternative Provision Plan of March 2023 is important but needs to be implemented at pace and supported by the funding needed to make a difference to young people.

“Councils have a clear obligation to complete the EHC Plan process within the statutory timescales, and while we do have some sympathy for their recruitment and retention problems, we will find fault where cases are outside those 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.”

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman remedies injustice and shares learning from investigations to help improve public, and adult social care, services. In this case the council has agreed to apologise to the mother and pay her £1,000 for the injustice caused by its failings.

The Ombudsman has the power to make recommendations to improve processes for the wider public. In this case the council has agreed to 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.

Article date: 01 February 2024

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