‘It’s a pleasure to use the term gifted in a constructive way’

Our editor Jon Sutton meets independent practitioner educational psychologist Paul Curran.

For an educational psychologist I think it’s interesting to start off with your own experience of school.
I’ve got happy memories really. Catholic parents sent me to Catholic school. I’m still in touch with half a dozen people from those days. I got into Leeds through clearing to do psychology, and I was one of the first people to do it. A key contributing factor was my A-level English teacher, who made us read R.D. Laing, Freud and the post-Freudians… there was no A-level Psychology at that time, but that teacher got me interested enough to find out more. And then day two at Leeds, the Head of Department said, ‘You should all join the British Psychological Society as students, particularly if you want to go on and become a psychologist.’ So I’ve still got my membership number from when I was an 18-year-old; it inspired a lifelong admiration for the BPS. Over the years I’ve done things on various committees, particularly the Division of Educational and Child Psychology.

Was that teacher fanning the flames of an interest in people that was already there?
No, I think it was new. What became clear, and is still the case, is that clinical psychology is the most popular applied area, but it was simply being a professional psychologist that appealed. I got into educational psychology almost by default.

The thing about ed psych is that you could end up teaching for 10, 15 years before you got on a master’s course. But I got offered a place on one of the few integrated courses, at Swansea. It was a nice package: you knew at the end you’d come out as a psychologist, relatively young compared to others at that time.

What’s it like teaching in the midst of that pathway? Are you teaching in a different way from a newly qualified teacher?
You had to do one-year primary, one-year secondary, and six weeks in a special school. But you were always a probationary teacher, never a fully qualified teacher. And you had to go in for lectures in the evenings, so you kept feeling you’re part of that course.

Because I was an educational psychologist in training I was asked to look after what was then called – this was a long time ago – the ‘remedial class’. All that experience got you lots of points when you were talking to staff… you knew what they were talking about. But I felt I was always a psychologist in training.

What were your first impressions of the education system?
The majority of people in it are dedicated, vocationally minded people who want to do well for the young people that they’re teaching. If it’s not for you, you tend to leave the profession. So you’d have that educational/learning focus, but the other aspects of the application of psychology to that system weren’t that different from what occupational psychologists did with organisations, or what clinicals did in the NHS. You were still using applied psychology in a lot of different settings, whether it was individually focused, groups, teams or organisational process change.

Creating a climate that people can thrive in. So you finished your master’s, where did you go from there?
My father died suddenly, so I went back home to help my mum. He was a pharmacist, that had to be looked after. I got a job in Essex as an ed psych, in Southend. But what I did do, the HoD at Swansea, Professor Maurice Chazan, was very big internationally, so I built a gap year into the plan. I’d got interested in two or three areas that ed psychs could be particularly effective in. One was pre-school kids. You get the right supportive programmes in place early, you can have a greater long-term beneficial effect. Another was kids with profound and multiple difficulties. Chazan knew all these professors around the States, and through that I went to about 15 different states over a seven- to eight-month period. A fantastic time!

What did you learn?
How much more money was put into research compared to here, how much better schools tended to be funded. I got to visit places like Portage in Wisconsin, where they had this little team led by Bronfenbrenner who had devised the Portage Checklist. This unique place was in the back of beyond, but the visitors’ book showed people had come from Japan to visit. It was a series of checklists to do with all developmental areas, and then step-by-step targets for helping kids become more independent. This was a home-visiting service, by teachers trained in the method. At that time it was completely unique and fascinating.

I was offered posts… the English accent goes a long way! But I knew I had to get back.

Did you come back with a different approach to children and their learning?
Perhaps to a degree. The role of ed psychs employed by local authorities is driven by legislation, and ultimately the budget to support them. You might get lucky enough to work in an innovative team of exciting psychologists, but more and more you are driven and paid to fulfil a statutory role…

Many educational psychologists seem to actively play down their role, saying ‘I’m not going in as the expert’… it’s quite a non-directive role of facilitating change.
I think it varies. Tom Ravenette wrote this seminal paper, ‘Never ever ever give advice’. His reasoning was that people won’t change if you tell them what to do, it has to come from them. That works in a lot of situations, but in other situations, people are asking for a very directive approach, or answers.

What if you’re working with children with profound difficulties? Does that population suit a more manualised, structured approach?
I think you’re right. What seems to work there is a behaviourist approach, for the parents, the teachers and the kids. When you go into a good special school you can tell it’s good by the way the teachers are organised and managing lessons and small-group activities… there’s fairly detailed record keeping, breaking things down into more and more detailed steps so that you can chart progress over time and have realistic targets on language development, independence, etc. You’re helping that person be as independent as they can become, into adulthood. That’s the best you can do.

You also work with gifted children. Does that require a more loose, creative approach?
Giftedness is just a social construct, it doesn’t exist. For a long time, IQ was the benchmark, but it’s more complex than that. You can have a very high IQ score, be quite accomplished in the classroom, but you might be very immature socially and emotionally. That can cause difficulties. There was a BPS conference where Howard Gardner was a keynote, and it was brilliant. All his slides were pictures, not a single word. I remember it vividly. That theory of multiple intelligences, completely independent, it still makes the most sense out of all the theories of intelligence for me. You can have a high kinaesthetic intelligence, be a great ballet dancer, but be rubbish at maths. It’s a lovely one with parents as well, to be able to say ‘OK, he’s not got a lot of interpersonal intelligence, but look at the way he plays football’.

Does it link with learning styles, a controversial area of research? People might have preferences for ways they learn, but that doesn’t necessarily map on to performance if they are taught in that modality.
It would depend who you talk to, and that’s what’s fun about psychology I guess! Steven Pfeiffer is the big cheese at the moment on giftedness and gifted assessment, and his tripartate model makes sense: high IQ as one, evidence of success, and ability to excel across a number of areas. But there’s not yet a gold standard assessment.

Are assessments motivated differently according to whether it’s teachers or parents asking for them?
Yes, and a key question is why are you testing in the first place… Where has that referral come from? Sometimes what might come up is that they’re worried about the kid’s behaviour, but he – usually a he – is just a bit bored. Let’s look at extension materials, if he’s finishing before the other kids. What would keep him interested? Perhaps a less experienced teacher hasn’t seen that, and then it’s all got blown up into something else. A psychologist can come in and see what hasn’t been spotted, and back it up if you need to with a few standardised tests. Let’s try a new plan for six weeks, review it, see what’s happened.

It seems a shame that the education system isn’t particularly set up to put resources into individual pupils, or if they do it often seems to be to the detriment of the rest of the class. My main sense of the school system is that it’s about getting the mass of the pupils up to a ‘good enough’ level, ‘adding the expected value’… there doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of effort put into ensuring that individual children actively thrive. ‘Stretch and challenge’ takes resource.
OFSTED did try to address that, with Progress 8, so you had to show progress at their level. But I think you’re right, overall, and the way the press cover schools, there’s a huge emphasis on paperwork for teachers, which drives quite a lot of them up the wall.

When my kids went to the local secondary school, a guy at the local cricket club asked me to come and be a community governor. It was interesting to see that side of how things work in a school – how driven it is by ensuring the middle all move up a bit. But you should be able to set up a system so that everybody is getting a good deal: if they can do it in places where the taxation rate is slightly higher, in northern Europe…

A lot of areas of applied psychology seem to be looking to Scandinavia. Talking of other countries, Dubai came knocking for you?
Yes. After four or five years in Essex, I got a tutor’s job at UEL. Two days as a psychologist in Essex, three days at UEL training ed psychs. Fantastic, nothing I would rather be doing. The HoD Professor Sheila Wolfendale sadly died in post, and I thought I’d try something else, see what independent practice is like. I looked at setting something up with three friends, as associates. This place, in Harley Street, was advertised in The Psychologist. They go through all your qualifications before giving you the licence to practise. I like this one because of the people, but the Harley Street location attracts a certain kind of international client. The basics are no different, you just don’t have to wait six months to see someone or get a report that you need.

About four years ago, a friend introduced me to the Dubai London Clinic who were looking for a psychologist. What they wanted was for me to go out there on a three-year contract, but with where my kids were in education and all the rest of it there was no way that was going to happen. We came to an arrangement that I’d come out for a week every five or six weeks.

And are you coming across issues that stem from cultural differences, or is the work similar to what you might get here?
I mainly work with the ex-pat community, because there’s such a big cultural difference sometimes. You can be in a position where you offend somebody unintentionally. A father might take exception to his child being described as ‘being on the autistic spectrum’: ‘but that is my son, how can there be anything wrong with him? You are insulting me!’

But when I’ve been in schools to give introductory talks it’s a very different place… health and education, everything’s private. Ex-pats might come in for three years on big contracts, and pay very high school fees for their children, and the schools there are even more driven by excellence.

We think of that constant testing as quite a UK thing, but it can be even more so, perhaps particularly in quite a transitory culture?
Singapore’s similar, the way it’s rigidly organised… the end product is a different type of young person, I think, compared with a school that might have a bit of creative arts going on, media studies, whatever, subjects that aren’t necessarily core curriculum but give you a wider base.

So I got contacted by the Education Development Trust, based in Reading. They support schools globally, and they said, ‘We’ve come across you, we have a client, Sandooq Al Watan and the Ministry of Education UAE. They feel they have identified the 2000 most gifted kids from grades 6 to 13, and they want to narrow that down to the top 100 most gifted.’ The oil is going to run out – they feel that if they can identify those top people now, long before they’re applying for university or anything, this will be really important for the future.

I find it impressive how the UAE and Dubai look after their own people. You can never establish yourself there: everyone there who is not an Emirati is sponsored by someone, usually a sheikh, and when their contract ends they are out. All the companies have to take a percentage of employees who are local. When you’re 21 you’re given a plot of land and money to build a villa for you and your potential family. Some people may say there are bad sides to that… but it’s like Bladerunner out there, and only a generation or so previously they were essentially desert dwelling, tribal people. The current Sheikh Maktoum, the combined Theresa May and Elizabeth II of Dubai, does seem to have this vision of the future beyond the gold rush city. When the oil’s gone, it’s just going to go back to desert unless we’ve got top, ahead-of-the-game technology, AI… so all the sheikhs contribute money to this project.

Where does the psychology click in?
They had been told it’s going to be the ones with the highest IQs. I was talking to them about what they wanted to identify and why, and to see it as more three-dimensional. We should also look at resiliency. Where are they in Belbin’s team roles? Let’s ask for parental perspectives, find out what the teachers think, get some qualitative stuff. You might want a blend of skills. Going back to Pfeiffer, he would say that you could call ‘gifted’ some children with an IQ above 115, who have achieved great success or have high social skills.

As for where we are now… I never go there between April and September. It’s just too hot. We were going to start in Abu Dhabi and start with CogAT, used in the States for identifying kids for gifted programmes. So I was proposing a more three-dimensional model. It’s a very exciting project now awaiting final confirmation of the start dates in early 2019 in four of the seven emirates of the UAE.

It’s become less and less fashionable to use the term gifted. The term high potential is preferred. Where do you stand on that?
In some ways that’s a shame. I remember a father, years ago, who was very keen on getting his son to the Yehudi Menuhin School, because he was very musically talented, and he was trying to do it through the special educational needs route, that the local authority should be funding it on those grounds. That was an interesting case. Didn’t work.

I suppose I don’t like the elitist overtone to gifted, exceptionally able, etc., yet as a shorthand it can be really quite helpful. To be able to say ‘the scores would suggest that your 10-year-old absolutely has the potential to go to a good university, to follow whatever they want to do’, when they started with worries about their school performance. It’s a pleasure to use the term gifted in a constructive way.

I think of it from a parent perspective. I see no conflict between being happy whatever our children make of their lives, and supporting them in that, while also pushing them to genuinely excel. Yet actively driving your children to be the best seems to have become a little frowned upon… perhaps due to a prevailing cultural view around elitism and meritocracies.
You’ve got to enjoy it, that’s the key. You can meet people spending thousands and thousands on school fees, investing all this money to get ‘that product’, whatever that is, without thinking about the actual kid.

But thankfully, some kids still enjoy learning and achieving. As do you? Do you ever think about moving back into the state system?
I did get asked recently, but I found it no different to 10 years ago, and quite frustrating in some ways. Nothing to do with the teachers, or the kids… it’s the bureaucratic processes, and the statements of special needs are now overtaken by health and social care plans. It’s a good idea in theory, that education health and social care all have to contribute to form one plan, but from what I’ve seen it doesn’t work very smoothly.

You’ve got your own kids working their way towards the end of that education system?
That’s right. And I don’t want them to start out with a £60K debt and no deposit for a flat or house, so I am definitely working for the next five years even though I have friends who have retired now! But I’m happy about that. All sorts of interesting work and projects have come my way here in London and in Dubai.

Photo: Jon Sutton

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