Special educational needs children 'put at risk' by a shortage of specialist staff

The life chances of children with special educational needs are being put at risk by a shortage of specialist staff and funding cuts.

The shortage comes at a time when there has never been a greater demand for educational psychology services.

Educational psychologists help pupils with a range of emotional, behavioural, learning and medical needs. The concern is children who need their help but can't access it will fall through the cracks.

Mason’s just turned seven. He’s bright, popular with his classmates and really likes school but that wasn't always the case.

At one stage he struggled to communicate, his behaviour was out of control and he needed an adult next to him watching his every move.

Seven year old Mason has been thriving at school since receiving the support of an educational psychologist

Mason's father Stephen Briscoe said: "At three, he would punch children, he’d bite them, he’d kick teachers.

"I remember one of his very first teachers, her feet were all bruised because he would stamp on her feet a lot."

Mason got help. Thousands of children don't. He started working with the school’s educational psychologist.

His father says the difference in his behaviour was almost immediate.

Stephen Briscoe says his family would have been "lost" without the specialist support of a SEND team.

Stephen said: "Mason has got ADHD; a sensory processing disorder; a social communication disorder, dyspraxia, a sleep disorder and he's on the pathway for autism as well so we have got them sort of categorised, not because we want to put names and labels on things, so he has the right signposting and the right pathway for his future."

Stephen thinks the family would have been "lost" without the support of the school's special educational needs team.

Charlotte has been diagnosed with anxiety, an eating disorder and ADHD

Charlotte’s nine. She’s been diagnosed with anxiety, an eating disorder and ADHD. She also self harms.

Her mother Gemma Nixon said: "It used to be on her arms and her face but as she's got older she’s got more aware of other children seeing it so she does in places that other children can't see it."

Gemma says their main source of support has been the school and the Special Educational Needs team.

She says Charlotte has benefited from being around people who understand her, but she’s still worried about her daughter’s future.

Gemma said: "It's life or death for Charlotte at the moment because she is eating so little. Obviously school can see it is impacting her.

"She hasn't got the physical strength. She’s struggling to sit and write.

"We're at the point where education is going to have to come second because the main thing is to get Charlotte through, to get her eating and keeping her alive."

Gemma says the school's SEND team has been her family's main source of support

The number of children with special educational needs has nearly doubled since 2014.

But council cuts have led many local authorities to either reduce their Educational Psychology team or become a service schools pay for.

There’s also a national shortage of educational psychologists. Dr Lee Randall from EdPsychEd says demand for his services has never been greater.

Dr Randall said: "For children with more severe challenges what you're talking about really is a massive impact on life chances.

"You’re talking about things like being able to live independently, being able to stay out of the criminal justice system, being able to form relationships with other people - let alone be able to thrive and get a job and do well in exams- so a good educational psychologist can have lifelong impacts for children's outcomes meaning they literally have a much happier, more fulfilled life than they otherwise would have."

Our Lady & St. Edward's Catholic Primary School in Birkenhead has paid for an educational psychologist for the past 10 years.

They say the cost of making children and families wait for help can be just too high.

Elaine McGunigall is the headteacher at Our Lady & St. Edward's Catholic Primary School

Headteacher Elaine McGunigall told me: "We go without other things so we can pay for that expertise. There's a real shortage of educational psychologists anyway and we haven't had a local authority ed psych for nearly two years.

"The children only get one chance and an ed psych helps us help the child and their family be the best they can be and be who they should be."

In response the Department of Education said: “We are investing over £10 million to train over 200 more educational psychologists from September 2023, to provide crucial support to children and young people with SEND, as well as families, schools and local authorities.

“We have also made an additional £3.7 billion available to councils to ensure they are able to deliver key services, including through funding for Educational Psychologists.”

A spokesperson for Wirral Council said: “In Wirral, as elsewhere across the country, we are experiencing a huge rise in applications for assessment for EHCPs (Education, Health and Care Plans), whilst experiencing a significant shortage of Educational Psychologists.

“To deal with this the council has established a contract allowing us access to Locum Educational Psychologists, and we have agreed to fully reimburse our schools if they are able to source an Educational Psychologist assessment at a faster pace than we can. In addition we continue to work in a targeted and creative manner within our own core team of skilled, committed and dedicated Educational Psychologists.

“The council has also embarked on an ambitious reform to drive Wirral towards a greater inclusivity, which has involved a significant recruitment drive and the creation and implementation of a bespoke graduated approach to satisfying the needs of our children and young people."

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