The strike action no-one is talking about - and needs to

File photo dated 5/11/2020 of pupils during a lesson in a classroom. Children are being put under a
Educational psychologists have played a core role in helping students catch up after the COVID lockdowns. (PA)

On 13 December, educational psychologists (EPs) will walk out of schools, colleges, nurseries and other settings where they work in a dispute over pay and conditions, including a crisis in recruiting these essential experts.

They’re the latest in a long list of public sector workers to take strike action, but probably the one you’ve heard the least about.

Educational psychologists play a critical role in schools, supporting for children with specific learning or behavioural needs. They have becoming increasingly important as children try to catch up after missing so much school during COVID.

Hannah Fearn explains what's going on.

What are educational psychologists? They are trained psychologists who specialise in children’s learning and development. They use their psychological assessment techniques to support children who are having difficulties with their learning, behaviour or managing social relationships. Schools often rely on them to support children with special educational needs and disabilities.

Who employs them? Local councils employ most educational psychologists to work in schools in their area, but they can also be employed by other institutions such as universities or work as self-employed contractors.

How much do you earn for doing that? Salaries for fully qualified educational psychologists start from around £38,800, with senior or principal EPs leading a local team able to take home up to £65,707.

Teachers in England went on strike earlier this year. (PA)
Teachers in England went on strike earlier this year. (PA)

Are there many of them? There were 2,989 EPs registered with the Association of Educational Psychologists in 2022, including trainees, but according to the School Workforce Census, 2,325 EPs were working for a local authority in 2022. And the number of trained staff is dropping.

Does that matter? Yes, because demand for their services is rising so fast. According to analysis by the magazine Schools Week, there are now 360 fewer full-time educational psychologists than 2010. But there were 114,500 requests for assessments for an EHCP – the formal statement of support that a child with special needs or disabilities requires from their school – in 2022, up 12% in just one year.

What does that mean for pupils in schools now? Their education is being directly affected by the shortage. “In times when schools are under increasing pressure, when rates of mental health problems and SEND [special educational needs and disabilities] are rising, educational psychologists are crucial components of a good education,” Dr Jen Wills-Lamacq, a self-employed EP and lecturer at University College London, told Yahoo News UK. “Unfortunately numbers are dwindling as working conditions are increasingly poor and resources diminish.”

Isn’t that a massive problem, as so many children need to catch up after the COVID lockdowns? Exactly. Primary school teachers say cuts to services including speech and language therapists and educational psychologists have left them feeling abandoned with growing numbers of children needing support.

“As a teacher there’s always been the challenge of how to cater to children who have very different level of achievement; that is part of what teaching is. But the sense now is that all those support services we used to rely on are just not available,” said James Bowen, director of policy for the school leaders' union NAHT.

Teachers accepted a pay rise from the government. (PA)
Teachers accepted a pay rise from the government. (PA)

Why can’t councils just recruit more EPs? They’re trying, but there aren’t enough in training. According to a government report published in June, 88% of local authorities are experiencing difficulties recruiting this year, and of those three-quarters (77%) said this was not a short-term problem. And due to changes to government funding for traineeships, some training routes into the profession are closing down, leaving only 204 training places for the next cohort of trainees.

Why are they going on strike now? They are overworked, under-resourced and unable to do their jobs properly under current conditions. Dr Patricia Britto, who worked with children experiencing trauma after the Grenfell Tower disaster, is among those who will strike on 13 December. She said: “The work I do alongside other EPs is precious. Yet the workload has increased for those working within local authorities for no increment in pay, and EPs are leaving the workforce. Recruitment and retention problems of EPs mean that children and young people are waiting extremely long to be seen or do not get to be seen by an EP at all.”

What are they asking for? EPs are calling for a new pay deal, stating the Local Government Association has refused to negotiate with them on basic rates of pay, as well as action to stop the retention and recruitment crisis in the specialism so that all children who need extra support at school will have access to their expertise.