County in ‘extreme emergency’ over shortage of SEND assessment experts

Essex County Council has admitted to an “extreme emergency” after struggling to find a sufficient number of experts required to bring down its backlog – the worst in England- of children waiting to be assessed for SEND (special educational needs and disability).

The council had earmarked just over £1 million for recruiting enough extra educational psychologists to reduce the worst backlog in England.

Currently, only one per cent of SEND assessments are completed within a 20-week deadline – and there are more than 1,000 in the education, health and care plan (EHCP) needs assessment process.

But Blackstone Recruitment Limited, which the council claims said it could meet demand, has now said they cannot deliver the “capacity to the timescales indicated in their submission and would need significant mobilisation time”.

Instead, the council has said it needs another £171,000 for Liquid Personnel Ltd who have assured the council that they can meet this capacity, albeit the costs are higher than would have been the case with Blackstone.

Currently, only one per cent of SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) assessments are completed within a 20-week deadline – and there are more than 1,000 in the education, health and care plan (EHCP) needs assessment process.

The council said the most significant contributing factor was the national shortage of educational psychologists (Eps).

It added: “Unfortunately the failure of the planned procurement and the need to respond to mounting external concerns means that there is now an extreme emergency.

“We believed we had found a supplier on a framework able to meet our needs and it was not foreseeable that we would be let down by this framework. These circumstances are not attributable to any fault of Essex County Council.

“To use a public competition at this time would cause many weeks delay. In these circumstances, it is justifiable to make an emergency direct award to secure these services.”

Although no competitive process has been held the council has said only Liquid Personnel has indicated they have the ability to deliver and to mobilise sufficient capacity to the required timescales.

The contract will run from June 1 to May 31 2025 at a cost of £1.296m, which is based on 900 assessments being carried out at a fee of £1,440 each.

In 2016, Essex was responsible for 7,550 children and young people with an EHCP. In January 2024 the number had increased by 75 per cent to 13,228.

In 2015-16 it received 1,638 requests for assessment compared to 3,986 in 2022-23 – up 143 per cent.

Of the 221,520 pupils in Essex, 24,862 pupils are on SEND support and 13,282 have an EHCP – a total of 38,144 SEND students.

In addition to the 1,000 outstanding cases, its 20-week process is already running approximately five to six months behind schedule, due in large part to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which stopped EPs from seeing children in schools.

The council said: “The most significant pinch point in the EHCP process is a fall in EP capacity, and this is also a significant national issue in terms of a shortage of educational psychologists.

“This proposal is an interim measure to seek to provide much-needed capacity to assist the special SEND services to reduce the COVID period backlog of unallocated EHC Needs Assessments outside the 20-week Statutory Assessment framework and ensure that capacity is available from ECC EPs to undertake the vital early intervention work outlined in the Inclusion Strategy and enable Essex to accelerate the assessment of EHCPs.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter