‘Educational psychologists need to be real change agents’

Dr Juliet Whitehead is Assistant Principal Educational Psychologist in Coventry and Chair of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Educational and Child Psychology (DECP). As told to Ian Florance.

Educational psychologists are no longer gatekeepers to the statutory assessment process. Yes, we work with children with special educational needs and disabilities, but very much within a multidisciplinary approach, with the child and family at the heart of the assessment process. This is not only in schools but may be within pre-school, further education and wider community-based settings.

For individual children we deliver therapeutic work, gathering their views, and carrying out pupil observations. This requires a higher level of resourcing, at a time when many educational psychology services are carrying vacancies and are finding it difficult to recruit staff. There have been 30 additional funded training places during the past three years which is a positive move. Even so, we need to train more educational and child psychologists if we are to fill vacancies to support children experiencing mental health difficulties, and those with special educational needs. When I qualified eight years ago, every school had a linked educational psychologist; that’s no longer the case.

Group work is usually undertaken in schools and focuses on important societal and psychological issues – anger management strategies and social skills are examples. We may also undertake work with parents and carers in groups – an example is delivering an intervention called ‘The Nurtured Heart Approach’. Different areas will focus on different issues depending on their specific needs.

Perhaps people don’t associate us as much with work at a systems level, but we offer training to other professionals including teachers, university students and to parents and carers, on subjects as varied as anxiety awareness, precision teaching, attachment theory, selective mutism and emotion coaching. The agenda is defined by each individual setting and will, to some extent, depend upon the needs of the staff and students attending. We want to provide a bespoke service. Psychologists also act as a critical friend to staff within schools and have a questioning role – for example, Are many children being raised with literacy difficulties? Is this a whole-school issue?

Then there’s research. As part of the doctoral training, all educational psychologists have experience in conducting research. We tend to carry out locally-based research studies that inform and underpin our practice.

Changing times
The nature of our work has changed following the implementation of the Children and Families Act 2014. For example, we used to work with 0-19-year-olds and the Act has extended the age range to 25 years. That is a great opportunity – as a profession we would like to do more to support this older age group. The British Psychological Society’s Division of Educational and Child Psychology is launching a book on just this subject at our annual conference in January. We are also in the early stages of sponsoring highly topical research into the issue of grammar schools – what short-term and long-term effect does 11+ failure have on children?

Most educational psychologists are still employed by local authorities and our work is usually traded, so it can be commissioned by individual schools. Each educational psychologist in Coventry is assigned a number of ‘link schools’ and they will visit each of them at least once a term, if not weekly. Nationally, one change we’re experiencing is the growth of private educational psychologists, driven in part by the growing numbers of academies and free schools.

In Coventry, we currently employ 15 educational psychologists, as well as a clinical psychologist, trainees and associates. The city has recently been named the UK City of Culture 2021. This is a great opportunity for those living and working here. Coventry has pockets of real social disadvantage, so the associated £3 million grant will be a huge boost. Coventry’s culturally and ethnically diverse population offers specific opportunities and challenges. For instance, I am privileged to work with a wonderfully diverse population – some of these families have English as an additional language; some are refugees; for some, religion is of great importance.

In the five years between 2010 and 2015, there has been a 13 per cent reduction in the number of educational psychologists working in local authorities. Yet local authorities want and need to work with psychologists. There were over 1000 applicants for 160 doctoral training places this year in England. Based on informal reports, I want to stress that those applicants were overwhelmingly passionate, intelligent and highly motivated. There is obviously a bottleneck, and the priority is simple to express, if not to solve – we need to train more educational psychologists!

Practitioners need to be suitably qualified and equipped to be real change agents. Last year, there was an All Party Parliamentary Group meeting in Westminster to consider the issue of children’s mental health, where the removal of early-level intervention and support has created additional needs. The current lack of qualified child and educational psychologists is central in that discussion. There are many different views about how we get more psychologically trained people working with children during a prolonged period of austerity. The extension of properly supervised assistant psychologist posts might also be part of the solution.

The use of psychiatric medication for children experiencing hyperactivity and attention difficulties who have not previously had any psychological intervention continues to be widespread and is increasingly featured in media reports. That must concern us. Although there is evidence to suggest that some children who take stimulant medication show some improvement in symptoms, concerns have been raised about potential physical, social and psychological side-effects. Long-term benefits have been questioned. The DECP continues to promote alternative psychologically based therapies and strategies as ‘good practice’ for the first line of support to a child with mild to moderate behavioural differences, in line with NICE guidelines.    

Finally, we are in an unprecedented time in which traded services are the norm. In recent years educational psychologists have needed to acquire marketing and business skills. The DECP believes ethical trading is a priority and we have published guidance to support practitioners with this.

An early fascination
I think my interest in psychology started early. I always remember being a fascinated observer of human interactions and relationships; the differences and uniqueness that make us all so individual. At school, I thought I’d either study law, journalism or psychology. I was accepted to study psychology at Bangor University and, after the first year, considered a career in either clinical, educational or forensic psychology. By the end of my degree I knew I wanted to train as an educational psychologist, although my master’s degree was in fact in the Foundations of Clinical Psychology. I completed a PGCE at Brighton University following which I taught for two years at a primary school in Stratford-upon-Avon. I then spent three years studying for my doctorate at Cardiff University and for the last eight years have worked in Coventry.

It’s hugely satisfying when having worked with a child, and started to really understand the issues involved, a consultation review meeting confirms the positive difference that has been made. The most challenging aspect of our work is that we tend not to have an ongoing relationship with children, unlike teachers, who by contrast have a longer period of contact.

And I love the DECP work. It enables me to look at the cutting edge of the profession and I can promote the work we do. It is important for us to talk more about the powerful role that EPs play improving outcomes for children, families and young people.

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