I declare an interest, Mr Sharma—my wife is Dr Cynthia Pinto, chair of the committee on the Division of Educational and Child Psychology, and she is active in the Association of Educational Psychologists, so you can imagine what our breakfast conversations are like. I welcome the Minister, who has had responsibility for disabilities in the past, which gives her an understanding of some of the issues we face. She has also been a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Treasury, so she knows where the money is buried, which is extremely helpful. I thank Professor Vivian Hill from the Institute of Education at University College London, who has provided a number of us with briefings on educational psychology.

I want to draw attention to the issues facing educational psychologists. The chief inspector of education identified that the demand and need for educational psychology services from schools and families, to support early intervention and preventive work, has significantly increased. The inspector’s report also identified that there is a huge geographical variation—to which my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) referred—in access to EPs, and noted that 60% of local authority EHCP assessments are not being completed within the 20-week timeframe as required.

Alternative provision has been mentioned. The Ofsted report last November identified that more children are being referred to alternative provision, but often because of the lack of access to specialist services in mainstream schools. Let us look at the stats on the increased numbers of education, health and care plans being issued. During 2021, 93,000 initial requests were made for assessment for EHCP—up from 76,000 in 2020. It is the highest number since data was first collected in 2016. His Majesty’s chief inspector of education reported that 1.5 million pupils were identified with SEND in 2022—an increase of 71% on the previous year; I found that staggering. The number of EHCPs has also grown by 51% since 2014-15. I think we are all experiencing that in our constituencies, as we receive representations from parents struggling to gain access to the planning processes.

Also interesting—I wonder whether others have experienced this—is the significant increase in the number of SEND tribunals, which becomes incredibly expensive for the local authorities. This is worrying. It is interesting that Professor Hill has identified this from the various statistics that have been brought out, and it was raised in a debate in the main Chamber a couple of months ago about the unmet mental health needs of children and young people. A record number of children and young people are being referred to NHS services for mental health difficulties. In the previous debate on this issue, MP after MP reported the issues and demand on CAMHS that are overwhelming it; that is increasingly worrying.

An increased number of children and young people are being permanently suspended or excluded from school. Some Members might have listened to the reports this morning about the number of “ghost” children, who are no longer in school. The figure of 20% was absolutely staggering. Covid has obviously had an impact, and there is a continuing impact on mental health, but local authorities struggle to maintain levels of support services for families in particular.

I also found interesting the evidence that local authorities struggle to recruit educational psychologists. The recent local government ombudsman report shows that 70% of local authorities are now struggling to recruit EPs. The Government have recognised that; it is one issue that is being addressed in the future of our workforce plan for skilled workers and the recruitment of staff. It has also been recognised that the recruitment of staff from overseas can assist us during this period while we struggle to recruit.

Many local authorities are now relying on locum cover from private providers but, as hon. Members will appreciate, that can be extremely expensive compared with direct investment. Educational psychologists have raised with the Government the issue of adequate funding of the services overall, which my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West mentioned. Specifically for EPs, the Government responded in December with £21 million in additional funding, which was welcome. That will be for intakes from 2024, but the problem is that the core funding is inadequate—it has not been increased since 2020.

Let us look at the figures put out by the British Psychological Society, of which the Division of Educational and Child Psychology is a part. The announcement of £21 million for 400 additional educational psychologists is definitely a step in the right direction, but the BPS says that it really does not go far enough to close the workforce gap. The figure that I find shocking is that we are now at the stage where in 2017 there were about 3,000 educational psychologists working in England; on average, that is the equivalent of one educational psychologist for every 3,500 children and young people between the ages of five and 19. Again, there was one for every 5,000 for those between the ages of nought and 25 —the plan period. Therefore, the demand is for a greater increase of investment in educational psychologists to increase the numbers because of the increasing demands.

I will raise one issue that is specific to my own patch, but which may be reflected in other constituencies. I have 2,400 refugees—asylum seekers—in hotels in my constituency, including many children, who go into local schools. I have toured the hotels and done advice surgeries in them, and what has been reported back from the schools and from the discussions I am having with families is that a number of those children, who are largely from war zones, are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. That is placing an increased burden on individual schools. The teachers welcome rising to that challenge, but they need additional resources.

I would welcome a discussion with the Government—maybe all MPs have this situation in their constituencies—about what additional resources could be targeted at particular areas so that they can overcome this period, which I am sure will be temporary, but requires resources at the moment. The message is clear from the DECP and others: additional resources need to be specifically targeted at the recruitment and training of educational psychologists to meet this growing demand and, exactly as the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) said, to give children the life chances that they desperately need.


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