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Education Psychology

Volume 516: debated on Monday 18 October 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Dunne.)

I have taken an interest over a long time in the provision of education psychology services, as I am very much aware that long waiting times for assessment can have an impact on the rest of a child’s life. I am delighted that the Government are undertaking a review into special educational needs, but deeply concerned that the training of educational psychologists appears to have been put on hold while the review takes place. I shall return to this point in more detail later, but emphasise now that educational psychologists will be needed to help to deliver the Government’s agenda to improve educational outcomes for children with special educational needs and to assist with early intervention—another area being reviewed, which again I wholeheartedly applaud.

Clearly, educational psychologists have a crucial role to play. They use evidence-based psychology to help children make the most of learning opportunities in schools. They solve educational social problems and problems arising from children’s differing needs through the application of psychology. They work not only with a proportion of the school and pre-school population, but also more widely with groups of parents and pupils. Examples of differing needs include visual and hearing impairments, cerebral palsy, autism, dyspraxia, dyslexia, social and emotional difficulties, and many more.

Educational psychologists play a key part in helping to shape how educational settings approach a vast range of education issues through statutory and non-statutory work, including on curriculum development, generalised and complex special educational needs, support for the gifted and talented, behaviour management, and delivery of early-years provision. They hold a recognised qualification in educational psychology—previously a masters degree and now a doctorate—and must be registered with the Health Professions Council. The benefits that they bring include knowledge of child development, which is all important because so many teachers go through training without much emphasis on that, although I know that that is being remedied. They provide early diagnosis and intervention, which is particularly important in the context of conditions such as autism, both for children who need ongoing assistance at school and at home, as well as for high-need children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. They also provide diagnostic advice and support. Understanding a child’s needs and providing a tailored support package to assist them is crucial to their development. A key role of educational psychologists is to advise and support teachers who would otherwise need to perform that diagnostic role.

Educational psychologists are responsive to local need. They work across the full range of educational settings and are well positioned in local authorities to identify and analyse trends across localities, and to implement strategies to address local need accordingly. They conduct a wide range of interventions, including help with emergency planning, critical incident support, support for fostering and adoption, advice on adapting curriculum and buildings for disability, and reviewing and monitoring children who are placed out of authority and within independent schools. Educational psychologists also play a crucial role in engaging parents and liaising between them and teachers to help to improve joined-up learning and developmental and well-being outcomes for children, not only in educational settings, but at home.

According to data from the Children’s Workforce Development Council, there are approximately 2,200 practising educational psychologists in England and Wales. CWDC’s 2009 work force planning exercise showed that approximately 120 new entrants to the profession are required annually to maintain a similar-sized work force and to meet current local authority demand.

The age profile of the profession is such that a sizable number of educational psychologists are approaching retirement. There is a national shortage and significant numbers of educational psychology services are carrying vacant posts. All the graduates from the training courses have found employment. In a recent parliamentary answer to me the Minister said that about 120 educational psychologists were expected to complete their training in both 2011 and 2012. That sounds encouraging, but my concerns are not allayed.

In 2006, the training changed from a one-year masters course to a three-year doctorate to acknowledge the increasing complexities within which educational psychologists work—a one-year course was inadequate to provide an appropriate level of training. That change also brought training in line with that of other professional psychologists across the UK and Europe.

In the past, funding for educational psychology training was administered by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which oversaw the top slice of funds to the Local Government Association, which distributed fees to higher education institutions and salaries to trainees through local authorities. Now the CWDC oversees the funding of training. A decision was made at Government level to cease the top slice, and the sum of money previously reserved for training was distributed among the 152 local authorities, which would then subscribe to training for educational psychologists. The money collected by the CWDC would pay for the higher education institution fees and also a bursary for the trainees during the first year of their training. It is greatly feared that the anticipated Government cuts will put local authorities under massive financial pressure, and that local authorities will therefore find it much harder to fund educational psychologists, or be less willing to do so. In the current climate, what guarantee is there that those educational psychologists who, in accordance with the Minister’s parliamentary answer, are expected to complete their courses in 2011 and 2012 will be able to do so?

Compounding this problem, according to the CWDC website the recruitment of educational psychologist trainees for the next academic intake has been frozen on the instruction of the Minister’s own Department.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on such an important subject. Does she share my concern that the freeze on the training of educational psychologists from 2011 onwards risks undermining a key component of education in our country and the facilities that are in place to support it, all of which go towards ensuring that every child matters and every pupil is given the best opportunity for their own advancement? Does she also agree that the Government need to do more to ensure that training is in place for the educational psychologists of the future?

That is a very valid point. If the freeze is for just one year, for example, there will be a shortfall in the number of educational psychologists of at least 120. No guarantees are to be made regarding future provision and funding until the Green Paper is published. The website says:

“As such the recruitment process for the 2011/2012 cohort is on hold until we have further information.”

I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some further information on that.

With existing trainees possibly finding that they will not be funded for the remaining part of their courses and the freeze on the recruitment process for 2011 and 2012, there is an immediate and real danger that the university courses will be without a new cohort of trainees for 2011 or the funding that they have depended on from local authorities, and they will simply be unable to continue to function. Students who are part way through their doctorate training may not be able to complete it, and significantly fewer, if any, new educational psychologists will be qualifying and entering the work force. That will be the case in a context where the Government have made a commitment to ensuring prompt access to high-quality specialist assessment and specialist provision. Those two conflicting aspects of this situation must be reconciled.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does she agree that, at a time when there is significant and increasing interest in psychology as a subject for graduate university study, and therefore the prospective pool of possible employees in the field is growing rather than diminishing, the urgent conversations she calls for between Government, local education authorities and the universities need to be held? Otherwise, it might not just be a case of people not progressing in their course; we might also send out a signal that working in educational psychology with youngsters is not a good career option for those who currently want to go to university or who have just started their undergraduate studies.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I think the uncertainty that he speaks of is what is causing the greatest concern, because not being sure exactly what their professional future might be like acts as a great deterrent to people entering a profession.

Something that the Green Paper on special educational needs is likely to consider is whether educational psychologists give independent advice, as they are employed by local authorities. Psychological assessment could be provided by educational psychologists in a number of ways, be it within or outside a local authority, but the bottom line is that we will still need educational psychologists. I do not understand the freeze; I hope that we will hear some further points about that.

For the past year, there has been a considerable shortfall in the moneys collected by the CWDC from subscriptions from local authorities. The CWDC has set up a working party to look at ways of ensuring stability and sustainability in funding. The CWDC consultant reported a number of options, with the most favoured being the reinstatement of the top-slice. The cost of training 372 new educational psychologists, with one third qualifying each year, is in the region of £9 million to £12 million per year. An option put forward by pressure groups is a move to central funding. I understand that this would be comparable to the funding arrangements for clinical psychologists who have their training funded centrally. Educational psychology is a smaller profession than clinical psychology.

Has my hon. Friend received an explanation from Her Majesty’s Government as to why educational psychology is being treated differently from clinical psychology? If some front-line service professionals are having guaranteed funding, why should the situation be different for educational psychologists?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I hope that the Minister will be able to address that point. The funding problems are threatening numbers, and that has implications for work force levels and the ability of local authorities to deliver all statutory responsibilities for the safeguarding, well-being and education of their children and young people. If an educational psychologist’s work was restricted only to statutory assessment and reactive casework in order to maintain quality of service delivery, the capacity of staff to be involved in equally vital, but non-statutory, preventive work would be reduced. That would preclude proactive work with children, teachers, all the professionals who work within children’s services and parents to maximise the chances of successful outcomes from early intervention—the type of work that, in turn, might mitigate the need for such high levels of statutory assessment in the first place.

Further concerns emerged during the passage of the Academies Act 2010, particularly as insufficient time was available in the House of Commons to discuss in full certain issues pertaining to special educational needs. I tabled an amendment to try to have discussion on the subject but, unfortunately, there was no time to debate it, and that was one reason why I wanted to secure this debate. One presumes that as more schools become academies or free schools, less money will be retained by local authorities. In the past, they retained a considerable proportion of the budget allocated to schools in their area in order to pay for a variety of important services, including monitoring special educational needs provision, SEN assessment and co-ordination, and educational psychology services. There are concerns about the amount of money able to be retained by local authorities to continue to meet their statutory responsibility for all vulnerable children, both within and outside the local academies.

What guidance will the Department for Education be giving to academies and other schools with commissioning powers on the need to provide pupils and staff with access to educational psychology services? Will the Minister clarify what responsibilities local authorities will have for meeting the needs of children within academy settings? My amendment asked for monitoring and a report back on funding for SEN within three months of the enactment of the 2010 Act, one of the purposes being to pick up early signs of any problems with the local authority funding of educational services. Indeed, the Special Educational Consortium believes that the expanded academy programme must be monitored to ensure that children with SEN and disabilities do not experience further delays in accessing the services of educational psychologists. I want confirmation that funding for educational psychologists will not be delegated to academies, and I would further appreciate a commitment from the Minister that monitoring the impact of the expanding academy programme on all local authority SEN services will be a priority for the Government.

The central state funding of training is critical, given the specialisation and the relatively small size of the professional group. It is national legislation that sets the requirement for independent professional specialist assessment to adjudicate between school and parental perspectives and interests, and it is therefore a matter for the national Government to make this process possible by supplying the high-level specialist knowledge and skills to fulfil that role. Where there is a statutory requirement for assessment, the training to make it possible needs central national funding. I therefore urge the Government to look again at how educational psychology training is funded.

I also want to share with the Minister and the many hon. Members who are here tonight the importance of this topic. There is an urgent need for clarity on the arrangements that will be in place to support training in 2011. Surely the Department will not risk the supply of educational psychologists drying up. The freeze on recruitment for training is on the CDWC website for any potential educational psychologist to see. What kind of message does that send out? There is an urgent need to look again at the voluntary and unsustainable nature of current funding, to ensure that national funds are made available to train and maintain good levels of educational psychologists. The country wants and needs educational psychologists, yet the current funding arrangements and the decision to delay recruitment place the future provision of educational psychologists in serious jeopardy.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on securing today’s debate on this important topic. She has campaigned tirelessly on the issue of educational psychologists and the need for adequate coverage for many years. I remember well the many times in opposition that she sought to amend just about every Bill that went through the House, to ensure that she had an opportunity to raise this issue. I understand how strongly she feels about it, and the fact that the House is so full tonight, despite the fact that it is almost 10 to midnight, is testament to the fact that Members on both sides of the House feel strongly about it, regardless of their political party.

My hon. Friend has shown her tireless commitment to this and to other issues relating to children with special educational needs and disability over many years, and it is therefore not surprising that Dod’s saw fit to make her MP of the year in its recent women in public life awards for her work on children’s issues. I offer her my congratulations on that.

It will not surprise my hon. Friend to hear that I share her ambition to improve education and children’s services in this country, in particular for those who need more support than the rest to achieve their potential. From my conversations with parents, teachers and children’s services professionals since I started this job, it has become clear to me that the complex and difficult situations that many families face can be made much more manageable if they receive the support that they need.

Educational psychologists are an extremely important part of the picture for many families in a variety of ways. They assess a child’s needs in order to identify problems before they get worse. They provide individual and group therapy to children who need psychological support, and they ensure that children and families are put in touch with the right professionals if they require other services. They also provide important advice to teachers and other school staff about what more can be done to support children with additional needs in educational settings, including gifted and talented children as well as children with special educational needs. They also provide a vital role in offering more strategic advice to local authorities across a range of children’s services, including fostering and adoption. I pay tribute to the work that educational psychologists do; it is absolutely vital for children and their families.

My hon. Friend has raised a number of specific issues about the operational aspects of the service, and in particular about funding and management. I shall turn to those first. She said that there are 2,200 educational psychologists in England, all of whom are trained to doctorate level. She said that there is a shortage, but in fact it seems that the work force are of probably the right size, notwithstanding the issues that she raised about future work force direction. It is a specialist service and it is demand-led, and local authorities must assess that need. As my hon. Friend said, that is undertaken by the Children’s Workforce Development Council. It has developed a useful model that will help local authorities to assess capacity in relation to local demand for the service. That could be an important part of local authorities’ forward planning and a good example of the more strategic role that we want local authorities to have.

Educational psychologists are employed directly by the local authority, which therefore manages the training and deployment of staff. My hon. Friend went through the history of how we got to the position we are in now. Previously, Local Government Employers administered the educational psychologists’ training and clearing house scheme. However, the LGE withdrew from those arrangements and the money was distributed to local authorities.

Since 2007, the Children’s Workforce Development Council has administered a funding scheme for the training of educational psychologists, to which local authorities are asked to contribute. However, I am acutely aware that the current scheme is not operating as effectively as it should be. As my hon. Friend said, contributions from local authorities have been steadily decreasing, and so far this year only 16 out of 150 local authorities have confirmed that they will be contributing, leaving a significant shortfall in funding.

That situation is not tenable. First, it leaves great uncertainty for those considering embarking on a career in the profession. Secondly, it is unfair that local authorities are not paying their share given that the money is included in local authority funding settlements. Thirdly and most importantly, as my hon. Friend outlined, we must have well-trained educational psychologists to provide for children’s welfare and development, particularly for children with special educational needs. So, in the context of the Government spending review and the systemic review of special educational needs, we are reviewing current arrangements and trying to find a more sustainable solution. We have had to place a temporary freeze on recruitment until the comprehensive spending review picture is clearer in the light of the significant shortfall in funding from local authorities’ contribution, but I am aware that the issue is urgent. I am very aware of the feelings expressed by Members of all parties.

I am pleased to hear the Minister talk about the importance of supporting local authorities in supporting educational psychologists. Does she not share my concerns that some of the changes that this Government have made to the funding available to local authorities for centrally determined budgets, particularly the money that they have said has to go to academies and to free schools, will undermine authorities’ ability to fund central services and to support special educational needs in schools and therefore educational psychologists?

Academies are still perfectly free to buy into the services that are provided by local authorities and in many cases they do so, particularly when they are of a high quality. They now simply have more freedom to choose how they do that.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole will understand that, because of the proximity of the comprehensive spending review and the work that is ongoing on the Green Paper, I am not able to say more about the outcome of the work that I have said we want to do to put funding for educational psychologists on a more sustainable footing. As I have said, we are committed to this issue and I am aware that the situation at the moment is simply not a sustainable solution. I am also clear that educational psychologists are a key part of any reformed special educational needs system. Adequate numbers of specialists will be essential, no matter what reform we choose after consultation.

It is worth my saying a few words about some of the key principles that are guiding our work on the Green Paper, because they are relevant to the debate and pick up on some of the points that my hon. Friend made. I am clear that the system is far too adversarial, with parents all too often feeling that they have to battle to get the needs of their child recognised, let alone catered for. There are some excellent examples of good practice, but unfortunately all too often there are harrowing tales of poor practice. We must get better at identifying need early, diagnosing accurately and putting in place the right support to meet the child’s and, indeed, the family’s needs.

We need a more transparent system in which assessments are streamlined and easier to cope with—a system that focuses more on outcomes for the child and the family and not just on ticking boxes on a piece of paper. I want parents to have more choice and involvement in decisions about their child’s education and care. Much more can and should be done to raise the attainment of children with special educational needs and disability as well as to raise expectations of achievement. Key to all those areas of reform will be educational psychologists. We need to make much better use of their skills in assessment, advising teachers and schools, and working with families and children.

Does my hon. Friend recognise the urgency of giving a clear signal that there will be training opportunities for educational psychologists, to both potential candidates and university departments?

I recognise that this issue is absolutely urgent, but my right hon. Friend will acknowledge that I am not able to say anything about this before the comprehensive spending review on Wednesday, as it is way above my pay grade. However, I am very clear that this issue is critical to the reform that I want the Government to push forward in the Green Paper, which we will publish later this year. I am sorry; I know it is very frustrating for hon. Members who want answers now. They are quite entitled to come and ask the Government about this and I am relieved that so many people feel so strongly about it, but at this stage all I can do is assure Members that it is absolutely on my agenda.

The current freeze is giving a very unhelpful message, although the reasons for it have been explained in the debate. The hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) has pointed out the problem with the age profile and the need for a sustainable approach, and I welcome the Minister’s saying that there will be an answer to the sustainability issue. She talked about an adequate number of educational psychologists: can she give us an idea of an adequate number? That would be helpful.

What is an adequate number will depend a little on the Green Paper. The role of educational psychologists might change depending on what we do with the assessment system. I would like them to play a greater role in offering therapeutic advice rather than just being used by local authorities as a gatekeeper to services, as happens all too often. Much work needs to be done with the Green Paper.

I want to press the Minister on the period of time in which we might expect some clarity on this issue. She has talked a lot about the Green Paper, but when might we see it? Will she commit to coming to the House and telling us about educational psychologists after that?

We hope to publish the Green Paper at some point in December. I am sorry that I cannot give a time for reform of the system around educational psychologists. All I can say is that—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).