Are we losing sight of learning?

Charles Weedon with an 'outsider's perspective' on the evolving role of psychologists in schools.

The context for educational psychologists has changed very significantly. In a DfES 2006 review, the outlook for local authority psychological services was distinctly upbeat. The importance of the role and its multifaceted nature was recognised and celebrated – but at the same time it was emphatic in its view that EP assessment of individual pupils should diminish.  

It was felt then, and probably now, that the distinctiveness and strength of the EP's contribution lay in the way they work across multiple settings. This helps develop a detailed knowledge of the range of resources that exist in and outside the authority, the procedures that are needed in order for pupils to access these, and of the role and function of other professional groups who work in the area. This knowledge allows educational psychologists 'to understand more fully the needs of children, to help agencies work together and to "oil the wheels" of joint working and decision making. It also places EPs in an excellent position to work with others in identifying gaps in services for children and in the planning and evaluation of new initiatives.' The message was that tying up EP time in formally assessing individual pupils was often a poor use of their time, except where difficulties were complex and profound.

The message reflected a confident and progressive zeitgeist. An increasing number of specialist EP posts were being created, and many authorities planned to increase the size of their EP service. Only 5 per cent of local authorities foresaw a reduction in the numbers of EPs that they would employ. There was evidence too that EP involvement in pupil assessment was being reduced – there were skilled professionals in schools who could do this kind of work as effectively as the EP. 

Looking back, it seems a time of astonishing plenty. Eleven years later, financial climate and policy emphases have changed context beyond recognition. Anne Greig, in the 'The woman who didn't see the angel' and in TES Scotland (29.09.17) argues eloquently that educational psychology is 'key to mental health in schools' but continues with the comment that '…. the numbers of educational psychologists allocated to schools was reducing, the educational psychology courses were being diminished and having funding removed. In fact, they are on the brink of extinction in Scotland.' 

What should be the response to these lean times? Is the direction of travel that seemed right at the time of the 2006 review, in a time of relative plenty, still right in these times of education cuts that bite deeply into provision for the most vulnerable? To me it seems perhaps not.  

The emphasis upon well-being and mental health is self-evidently right – but the emphasis upon achieving this through systems-level strategies and initiatives can perhaps be questioned. Schools are primarily places of learning, and while they are in addition invaluable access points to children and families who need psychological support, this is not their primary purpose. Being happy places where each child can learn successfully is their core function, and this should surely be reflected in the ways that psychologists work in schools.

I wonder, then, if the existing balance between the contributions of clinical psychology and educational psychology in schools provides the best fit. It is an old issue, reflected in the 2006 review where it was suggested that 'Given their shared background in psychology, similarities in the nature of knowledge and skills needed to do the job and an increasing overlap among their client groups, this would be an appropriate time to consider whether a merger could provide more efficient access and transparency of psychological services to children and young people'. It remains a current issue. The very recent review from the British Psychological Society's Division of Clinical Psychology's Faculty for Children, Young People and their Families (CYPF) explores the issues thoughtfully and comprehensively in What good looks like in psychological services for schools and colleges. It comments that 'Children’s mental health has never had a higher profile than it does now' but tends to convey an impression that, for psychologists, schools are seen more as valuable platforms for addressing wider mental health issues, experienced by the child beyond the school, rather than considering the role of schools in themselves as engendering mental wellbeing through their core activity of learning and teaching. It concludes that 'provision of psychological services in schools presents an exciting opportunity to develop innovative services that support the psychological wellbeing of children and young people thus helping to prevent mental health problems, improve and facilitate early intervention and provide an increased reach of psychological services.'

Yes, but….? 

My own route to educational psychology was not the usual one. Starting from secondary subject teaching I moved to learning support in a range of settings, across the age range in local authority and independent sectors, and thence, via educational masters and doctoral degrees and Associate Fellow status with the BPS, to registration with the HCPC as an educational psychologist.

It was, then, an educational route into the area rather than a psychological route. I came to the practice of educational psychology bottom-up rather than top-down – my perspectives stem from classrooms, teachers, families and children rather than the mores, values and theoretical foundations of the psychology community. I have not been exposed to the cultures and perspectives engendered through formal induction into the profession of psychology. While this contributes generously to the imposter syndrome most of us surely experience from time to time, I do wonder if it sometimes helps me notice things about the emperor’s new clothes that others apparently do not? It has been said of figures such as Einstein, Freud and Proust (in Peter Watson's A Terrible Beauty) that they 'drew their strength from their marginality which heightened their powers of observance'. Maybe outsiders do notice things that insiders might miss?

For me, it has led to wondering about the focus of educational psychologists, in Scotland at least. Again and again, in providing private (independent) assessments of children not thriving at school, I have met bafflement, sometimes anger, from families about why they had, they felt, needed to ‘go private’ to gain this kind of understandings of their child’s strengths and weaknesses as a learner. This anger intensifies should the case reach Tribunal, with parents feeling that their child’s schooling is being influenced significantly by reports from an educational psychologist who appears, sometimes, to have spent only a little time with the child. They feel their reports add little new, and do no more than reflect the existing views of those already involved.

While I recognise that my perceptions of families’ views stem from families I encounter, families who represent only a subset of the general population, perhaps a very small subset who feel their child’s difficulties are not understood at school, they do perhaps reflect a gap in provision that the EP should be filling. The 2006 review wanted EPs to move away from such work, and moved they have – but the vacuum they have left has not been filled in the predicted way. There is not an increased level of in-school expertise. There are, perhaps, compelling reasons why EPs should reverse their move away from direct assessment.

One evident significant casualty of the increasing pressures on education budgets has been support to children with additional support needs – there are fewer and fewer support staff at all levels within schools, from support assistants to qualified specialists. There appears to be an increasing lack of confidence and awareness of learning difficulties in schools, as in-house experience and expertise is remorselessly whittled away. This combines with ever-increasing and politically-driven pressures upon the curriculum, leaving less and less time for teachers to focus upon individuals.

 But EPs seem increasingly distant from aspects of their role that might fill this gap. Individual casework at the level of learning difficulties appears to be relatively rare, when there is perhaps an argument that it should constitute an important part of the foundations upon which the EP's authority should rest. 

From my perspective of the ‘outsider within’, there is a sense that, as well as increasingly emphasising their role in whole-school wellbeing and mental health, EPs have realigned their role to one where, they feel, the only way they can input effectively is at a systemic level more than at an individual level. There is a sense that they simply do not have time to focus on the individual, that the only way they can impact effectively is in a role where their expertise and experience is disseminated via school staff – so their interaction with schools tends less and less to be casework based. It is expertise at a remove, a pragmatic response to being simply too thin on the ground. Their engagement with individual learners appears, more and more, to draw upon information provided by others who know the child well, and less and less through working with a pupil to gain their own understandings of how that pupil functions as a learner. I have heard an experienced EP comment that some of her younger colleagues wouldn’t know how to assess a child’s learning difficulties (in that case, for difficulties of a dyslexic nature).

An EP is seen as a figure of authority in schools – but from where is their expertise drawn, upon what is their authority based? If their input is, as it seems to be, primarily at a staff level rather than at the level of the learner, how do they gain and sustain an understanding of how a pupil learns? Perhaps an understanding of this nature is not seen as central to their role?

A fairly generic description of the role is that EPs 'work within local authorities, in partnership with families and other professionals, to help children and young people achieve their full potential. ... They use their training in psychology and knowledge of child development to assess difficulties children may be having with their learning.' Does this imply that EPs should be contributing some further information about the learner, or is it enough that they use their psychological perspectives and understandings to add another dimension to the existing understandings? That seems often to be the dominant strand of their contribution, and I wonder if it is enough.

The central focus of the work of practitioner psychologists in schools seems increasingly to be children's mental health and well-being, and this is unarguably as it should be. But in taking a systems-level approach to school-wide mental health and well-being issues, is there a danger of responding to symptoms rather than addressing causes? Classrooms, and what happens in them, day by day and to each individual learner, are self-evidently at the absolute heart of education. Schools where children are succeeding appropriately in their daily learning are schools where children are happy, their in-school well-being flowing directly from successful learning. 

Learning, in all its forms, must lie at the heart of schooling and schools. Each of us learns in our own unique way, drawing upon our own unique patterns of strengths and weaknesses, and the ways in which these will have interacted continuously to form each of us as a learner. Learning is incredibly complex, dynamic and idiosyncratic, involving a multitude of subtle and simultaneous skills and domains of knowledge. Gaining and sustaining an understanding of the detailed dynamics of learning seems wholly central to what educational psychologists should be doing, if part of their their role is advise and support when difficulties are encountered.

The child who finds learning difficult may well be observed, will certainly be discussed, written about, read about… but less often, it seems, worked with. In a culture where standardised testing is increasingly dominant as a means of measuring and comparing progress at a school level, it seems paradoxical that, for many EPs, trying to understand learning at an individual level is regarded with a certain scorn. Caution about focusing primarily upon 'in-child' explanations is understandable. We do not wish to pathologise and medicalise normal behaviours. But we do want to understand those behaviours, and how they impact on children's learning. Who is best placed to provide that understanding?

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