Bridging degrees of separation

Phil Banyard and Helen Kitching on the work of the British Psychological Society's Standing Committee on Pre-Tertiary Education.

Madeleine Pownall (Letters, October 2017) asks what can psychologists do to help prepare students transition from psychology A-level to undergraduate study.

When George Miller in his famous presidential address to the American Psychological Association spoke about giving psychology away, he could have been imagining the psychologically literate population that is being created by psychology courses in schools and colleges in the UK. There is a democratising process going on and you might see it as psychology for the many not the few (© J. Corbyn). For over 25 years Psychology has been a popular A-level, and during that time has always been in the top five choices eclipsing mainstay subjects like Chemistry, History and Geography. Only Maths, English and Biology consistently attract more students than Psychology.

Most of these psychology students do not go on to study it at higher education and so their understandings of the subject come from these A-level, GCSE, Access, Scottish Higher, National Five, Higher National Certificate or Diploma, International Baccalaureate and BTEC courses. These courses define, in part, how psychology is seen by the general public. And a rough calculation (about 100,000 students for 25 years) gives us over 2.5 million people who have studied psychology at school or college. This is why the British Psychological Society takes an interest in these courses.

In an ideal world where love lasts for ever and cornflakes never go soggy, the BPS would be able to have a direct influence on the development and delivery of psychology in schools and colleges. But that is not the way with curricula in the UK. They are very political documents and have to conform to the prevailing views of what education should look like.

Through its Standing Committee on Pre-Tertiary Education (SCoPTE) the BPS contributes to all the many consultations that come round, such as those on the nature of the curriculum, the preferred assessment types and the role of maths within each curriculum. The direction of travel for curricula over the past 10 years has been towards a more conservative and less relevant course; and although the BPS has consistently counselled against this, it has not been able to have the effect that it would like. For example, non-examined assessment (NEA), otherwise known as coursework, is no longer a requirement in A-level courses and was effectively abolished in the last revision of A-levels because the then Secretary of State believed that it could not be assessed fairly and reliably (although it remains in the Scottish Higher). Remarkably, the same rule was applied to the other sciences, and so this type of assessment has dropped out of Physics and Chemistry as well.

The above illustrates the climate in which specification developers have to operate and shows the limits on the influence of professional bodies such as the BPS. This is a far cry from the start of the A-levels, where in the late 1960s one of the examination boards approached the BPS to create a, then, brand-new syllabus in psychology, which was then developed and brought to life by John Radford. Since that time the BPS has kept a close watch on these courses and tried wherever possible to promote and support them. Twenty-five years later the Oxford and Cambridge Examination Board did something very similar to create a new syllabus and Psychology Teaching Review devoted a special issue to the design of the course. Even in 2000, the examination boards worked together to develop the Advanced Extension Award in Psychology. However, this style of syllabus creation is no longer possible in the regulated world of modern school education.

In today’s climate of control, clear and prescriptive guidelines for a syllabus are created by the Department for Education in England and Wales, and SCoPTE makes extensive representations during this process. Once the guidelines are published, it is up to the examination boards (or awarding bodies as they are now called) to create their unique courses. This is another opportunity for the BPS to contribute as the awarding bodies are required to consult at this stage with the BPS as the ‘learned society’ for psychology. Links with all the awarding bodies are maintained through their representation on, or membership of, SCoPTE. The BPS responds to the consultations when asked, and sometimes when not asked.

Some questions that SCoPTE explores are strategic, such as how we can create courses for schools and colleges that provide an appropriate preparation for study in higher education (HE). This task is made more difficult by the relative reluctance of universities to fully engage with the process or to see A-level or equivalent as a requirement for study. What other science would make a point of saying it wants students who have not studied it at A-level? The role of SCoPTE here is to inform HE and to act as a bridge, where possible, between the two sectors.

Some questions are much more practical. For example, although NEAs are not part of the current curricula, all specifications will expect students to undertake some practical activities, whilst some awarding bodies actually require students to undertake specified research that is examined. This brings a range of ethical problems to be resolved, such as whether classes should be allowed to carry out studies on themselves given that they are under 18. Another practical question concerns how best to prepare teachers who do not have a psychology degree to deliver an A-level or GCSE in the subject. The rapid growth of the subject has meant that this has been a relatively common experience for teachers. SCoPTE has provided guidance when it can to teachers and has worked with the Association for the Teaching of Psychology to promote the interests of teachers and support them in delivering the subject to their students.

Committee work is not the most exciting or even rewarding activity you will ever do, but it is a necessary part of the way that we do business. Quality assurance, though not an end in itself, as some of our employers would have us believe, is important if we are to ensure that students get the best psychology education that is available. That is why committees like SCoPTE are so important, not just for supporting courses in schools and colleges but also for protecting the public reputation of the subject. If psychology is being given away, then we need to be part of the team that is doing the giving.

Phil Banyard
Nottingham Trent University

Helen Kitching
Chair of SCoPTE

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