'We’re moving around the garden to get different viewpoints’

Mark Fox has had a long and distinguished career as an educational psychologist. Ian Florance met him.

There have been many influences on Mark’s thinking about educational psychology. ‘I was born in London in 1950. My Dad was in the woollen business which meant we moved around – first to Yorkshire, then to Ireland. I was hugely influenced at the age of eight by the experience of being hospitalised for nine months for tuberculosis. First, I read enormously. Second it affected my personality: it made me more philosophical about how little you can influence what is going to happen.’

Mark was sent to a boarding school in Dublin, Mount Temple, whose alumni include members of U2 and the inspirational author and poet Christopher Nolan. ‘It was a very liberal school for Ireland of that time and I was the despair of my teachers. However, I really concentrated in my last year at school and was accepted into Trinity College, Dublin to study Zoology – my interest sparked by the work of Konrad Lorenz. I failed my first year and, in the end, took a BA, studying Psychology, English and History.’

Mark says his attitude to psychology is partly shaped by being educated in Ireland. ‘At that time, the Irish Leaving Certificate involved studying seven subjects and there was no forced choice between arts and sciences. So I went to university with a reasonably broad intellectual background, and that gave me a lot of options. The present narrowing down for A levels is not helpful for psychology students. I think that the practice of psychology is primarily an art rather than a hard science. I understand that positioning psychology as a science helps universities get research funding and government grants, but it doesn’t fit with how I’ve come to see it in practice helping people.’

‘The system was rotten’
Mark’s family had moved to Yorkshire though he completed his degree at Trinity. ‘I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do so I took the Postgraduate Certificate of Education at Keele University, then worked in Manchester. I taught English in a secondary school and didn’t enjoy it – I was a poor teacher and found it difficult to cope with the alienation and aggression of adolescents. I then taught at a special school, which was much better, teaching children with moderate learning difficulties to read. The staff were great, the work engrossing and yet, while it worked on a day-by-day level, the system was rotten. Black pupils were disproportionately represented and many of the pupils shouldn’t have been there. I enjoyed it… but I got angry about how Special Education could be abused.’

‘One of the best decisions I ever made, with the support of my wife, was cashing in my pension to self-fund the educational psychology training course at Exeter University. The dominant narrative there was that the problems were in the system not in the child. The programme director’s view was that EPs spent too much time sitting watching children waving as they were swept past in a fast-flowing river. Every now and then an EP jumped in and tried to save them. That was pointless! We needed to walk upriver, identify who was throwing the children in and start building a dam. That struck home given my experience of Special Education.’

Between 1976 and 1988, Mark worked as an educational psychologist in Solihull than as a Senior Educational Psychologist in Bromley. At that time, the rhetoric was all about ‘giving psychology away’, an approach promoted by Lea Pearson, President of the Society 1987-88. ‘This involved talking to and training teachers and parents in psychological techniques. In Bromley I was in charge of the Educational Psychology Service. I drafted the newly introduced Statements of Special Educational Needs (SEN) for the Borough which meant I had a lot of control over how resources were used. One of the things I am most proud of in terms of building “the dam” is setting up the largest Portage service in the country.’

Portage is a service originating in Portage, Wisconsin where it was designed to support parents of children with special educational needs who lived in rural, difficult-to-access places. Portage workers visited these families at regular intervals, and used the Portage materials to train parents, set targets and measure progress. Mark says ‘I know how much it helped parents of children with SEN. We had 40-plus Portage workers in Bromley at its height. It impacted on the whole community as companies and other organisations got involved. Everyone had a voice.’‘

He’d refuse to sit at the same table…’
It’s easy to forget how controversial SEN provision, the use of tests and statementing were at the time. Mark discovered this. ‘My wife was working at the Half Moon Theatre in East London and we were invited to a dinner by one of the trustees. As soon as I told them my profession a headteacher stormed out saying that I was a racist, a labeller and that he’d refuse to sit at the same table as an educational psychologist!’

Mark’s interest in working with children who have complex needs developed through his interest in Portage. He says that few educational psychologists were interested in the area at the time. He also learnt a further valuable lesson working at SCOPE between 1992 and 1998. ‘My manager had quadriplegic cerebral palsy. He made it quite clear that professionals were looking in exactly the wrong direction. He didn’t want to be made “normal”, but recognised as different. He was very clear professionals should deal with the injustices and inequalities in society – attitudes, access, and finance – and rectify those that worked against people with disabilities. All my work helping children overcome

disabilities was, in his view, naïve at best, self-regarding at worst. The problem is with our society – not the individual. He helped me to understand why the social model of disability is so important.’

The implications of this became clearer and clearer for Mark. ‘A lot of what SCOPE taught me revolves around improving people’s quality of life. So, the educational psychologists’ role is to look at things from children’s or young person’s perspectives – including those with complex needs and severely limited communication – and then improve the environment round them. This is often about the familial quality of life. I have to stress it’s not as simple as changing a mechanistic system – building a dam – I don’t any longer see system change like that. And if you change one thing in a situation, you’ll almost certainly cause problems elsewhere.’

Mark’s intellectual journey is fascinating but, as he said, after a pause, ‘I love being an educational psychologist because I like children and being with them. The big systems changes are not the attraction!’

‘People create their own narratives’
Despite his delight in working with children, Mark’s latter career has been spent lecturing, and leading courses and training programmes for educational psychologists in tertiary education.

‘I wasn’t necessarily a particularly good manager and I’d really enjoyed my time at Exeter: academic life seemed like the good life. My career has been about knocking on doors and seeing “fatalistically” if they will open. So, I’d done my doctorate at the University of East London in 2000 and worked as a senior lecturer in Educational Psychology at the University of Essex from 1998 to 2009. During that period I was seconded to the Tavistock Clinic for part of each week as a tutor for the Professional Doctorate for Educational Psychologists. I was teaching research and a key idea was evidence-based practice using randomised controlled trials to develop generalisable theories. Tavistock taught me the value of practice-based evidence.’

Mark describes this as a ‘post-modern idea. People create their own narratives and our job is to listen to these very different narratives – say those of children, teachers, and parents – to make sense of what is going on. This goes right back to my point about my education in Ireland, my interest in literature and in quality of life. I was particularly influenced by the work of David Campbell at the Tavistock, a systemic therapist who suggested being a psychologist is like being a landscape gardener… we’re moving around the garden to get different viewpoints.’

How has educational psychology changed during Mark’s career? ‘The move from one to three-year training is an obvious one as is the fact that you no longer have to have been a teacher to train. There’s a much greater variety of backgrounds. It’s definitely more “psychology” and less “educational”. At one time the profession was focused on children with “special needs” in schools; now we deal with vulnerable children and young people both in and out of school. I’d prefer us to be called child and educational psychologists but when that was proposed some years ago there was resistance.’

‘It’s a hugely varied role. In different schools an educational psychologist might consult with staff; talk to parents; carry out assessments, run workshops or training for teachers and of course talk to children about the difficulties they are having – both emotional and learning difficulties.’

‘The change in funding is also important. Some local authorities fund educational psychology. Others contract it out so some educational psychologists run their own companies and get their work from a variety of sources. This means new entrepreneurial skills in terms of managing, marketing and fund-raising. It may also impose a different role. At SCOPE, as head of their Advisory and Assessment Services, I was an advocate for parents and their children with a disability. This is a similar position to those who are working privately – you are expected to be an advocate for those who are employing you. The concept of an EP giving independent advice is being challenged by these new employment opportunities.’

Mark ended with another story. ‘I was once called to a primary school which had not seen a psychologist for a while. After introductions the headteacher said “I have rather a difficult problem. I am really worried about my deputy head: can you help?” Well, that seemed odd, but I said, “If I can”. The head asked me to observe him and took me along to a classroom. As we entered, the deputy head, holding a swagger stick, marched up to us from the back of the class, saluted the headteacher barked out “Sir, I await your orders”. At the same time the class rose as one and were standing stiffly to attention. I took a step back not certain what to do apart from to watch what was going to happen… and there was a gale of laughter, including the head and deputy. “We thought we’d test you”, said the head. “If you can deal with this you can deal with everything.” I sometimes look back on that to remind myself that educational psychology is important and serious, but also enjoyable and fun.’ 

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber