A vital education

Juliet Whitehead on life as a trainee educational psychologist

British Psychological Society (BPS) accredited professional training for educational psychologists (EPs) in England and Wales changed in 2006. The one-year master’s programme was replaced by a three-year full-time programme leading to the doctorate qualification. As a second-year trainee EP studying at Cardiff University, I welcome the opportunity to share my experiences in light of the revised professional training route.

The extended training offers greater breadth and depth, in terms of developing understanding and experience, and a corresponding responsibility for trainees to reflect this knowledge in their practice. Cardiff University has ensured the acquisition, consolidation and demonstration of this level of competency by delivering a comprehensive curriculum that includes: assignments, group tasks (including collaborative research projects), presentations, written reflections, small-scale research projects, taught sessions, educational psychology service (EPS) placements and writing-up of fieldwork. A key element of the programme is the submission of a thesis in the final year of training, undertaken with the support of a designated supervisor. 

Trainees are placed in a different local authority (LA) each year for blocks of time, with periods set aside for university sessions or studying. The work I have undertaken during my placements has illustrated the considerable difference that the application of psychology can make to children and young people. This work has included assessing learning and emotional needs; developing, delivering and evaluating therapeutic and behaviour management programmes; reviewing policies; and conducting research. From my own experience, the opportunity to work as a trainee EP within a variety of LAs has provided invaluable insights into different models of practice and service delivery. It has enabled me to consider the merits of various EPS structures, the roles that they play within LAs, and the diverse populations that they serve.

It is especially evident during EPS placements that the EP’s role is dynamic and evolving, and it is a privilege to be  a trainee at a time when much emphasis is being placed on collaborative working using a multi-agency team approach to deliver a comprehensive, quality service. It is my experience that the role has moved away from working with children and young people on an individual basis and towards a consultation approach. This has provided opportunities for me to seek to support children and young people through working with their families, and colleagues from various disciplines, including teaching staff, health professionals and social workers. I have found this multidisciplinary and multi-agency collaborative working particularly surprising; the professionals working with a child or young person can be numerous and diverse. This has highlighted the importance of appreciating and understanding the roles of organisations and agencies early on within the placement, the necessity for effective communication in a language common to all, and the need to consider multiple perspectives to ensure the best outcomes for the children and young people with whom we work.

University-based sessions have developed my theoretical knowledge and maximised its practical application during EPS placements, not only within schools, but also in the wider community. These sessions facilitate a safe environment to explore, debate and challenge extensive and diverse issues and practices. From my experience the increasingly eclectic mix of trainee EPs’ backgrounds (a teaching qualification no longer being required for training) has provided a fresh and diverse range of perspectives and skills applicable to the EP’s role.

One component of the training programme that has recently had a considerable impact upon my thinking is fellow trainees’ process account presentations, detailing a piece of work undertaken on the current placement. The extensive range of professional work at the individual, group and systemic level; the different approaches to service delivery; and their increasing responsibilities carried out within EPSs have highlighted the collective progress made since the same activity was undertaken the previous year. It was also reassuring to know that the same initial feelings of conscious incompetence at the beginning of more complex and challenging pieces of fieldwork are not unique to me!

At the initial stages of the training programme, I remember feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the curriculum requirement to conduct multiple research projects. I thought that research studies, especially those involving quantitative analyses, were somewhat daunting, having not opened my SPSS textbooks (the ones for beginners) for several years. I would no longer say this is true.

Lectures on quantitative and qualitative research skills early on in the programme introduced and built upon pre-existing knowledge. A collaborative research study allowed these skills to be applied with the support of fellow trainees and a subsequent small-scale research study carried out independently ensured the consolidation of these skills before the thesis research study was begun. The studies have been genuinely fascinating, and have included an exploration of the attainment and resilience of looked after children with emotional and behavioural difficulties; the promotion of emotional health and well-being in one Welsh authority’s primary and secondary schools; and factors affecting anxiety in more able adolescent students.

Research studies will often have their challenges, and those concerned with educational psychology are not exceptions to this. Collecting data from students with additional learning needs; coordinating the return of written consent forms from parents, students and schools; participants’ absences on the day of data collection; and the equipment, that has been tested and retested prior to data collection, nevertheless breaking down at the crucial moment; these are just some of the challenges encountered so far. My thesis study is in its infancy…

The experiences and opportunities created by trainee EPs themselves, as independent learners, also expand their knowledge and understanding of the profession. I was privileged to represent trainee EPs at the BPS’s Division of Educational and Child Psychology Annual Professional Development Conference held in Manchester earlier this year. The experience inspired my involvement in hosting, along with other Cardiff trainees, our own conference, ‘Psych-Odyssey’; a conference for fellow trainees to be held on 4 September 2009 at Cardiff University (for information e-mail [email protected]). With many EPs, including Brahm Norwich and Tommy MacKay, agreeing to present a wide range of thought-provoking topics focusing on the theme of the future of educational psychology, it is hoped that the conference will provide a vehicle for stimulating discussion and inspiration.

The knowledge that we acquire during our training provides the foundations on which new ideas and concepts are developed. Ultimately, this will make a significant difference to the education and well-being of the children and young people with whom we work. The profession possesses enormous potential. At a time of increased emphasis on multi-agency working, and with greater opportunity to construct our distinctive professional role, the future is one that I look forward to with optimism.


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