‘Educational psychology is inherently political’

Ian Florance interviews Dr Victoria Lewis, educational psychologist and Co-Chair of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Educational and Child Psychology (DECP).

Victoria recounts a story which reflects how educational psychologists (EPs) were once seen. ‘I started to work as an EP in Nottinghamshire in 2002. One morning I wanted to make a cup of coffee and I couldn’t find the jar belonging to the educational psychologist team. I asked where it was and was told, “it’s labelled SEND: special educational needs”. I answered, “but we can do so much more than that”. The widening of our roles had already started and it was a fascinating time to be working, as educational psychologists were applying their training as change facilitators to a whole range of educational areas.’

Victoria’s contribution to a 2009 article in The Psychologist stressed areas which she saw as critical to the development of psychology in educational systems. These included collaborative working; EPs better understanding their own range of skills, knowledge, and strengths; increased involvement in organisational problem solving and evidence-based practice; and a critical questioning of the methodology behind interventions. Has educational psychology changed to reflect these issues in the last 12 or so years, and what does the future hold? 

Drawing both on wide trends and her own experiences, Victoria painted a picture of dynamic change and genuine excitement about the value of educational psychology.

‘Language creates meanings’

‘Individual child assessment and statutory assessment is still an important part of our work but how we approach it has changed. Tom Billington, Emeritus Professor at the School of Education in Sheffield, and his 2000 book, Separating, losing and excluding children, helped me question the place of deficit discourse when relating to children and young people. Language creates meanings and increasingly we need to contextualise the statements made about children and the importance of identifying their strengths.’

‘Collaborative/consultative working has changed how we go about our “special needs” work. Once, under pressure of time and workload, an educational psychologist might have assessed a child or young person who was “referred” to them through a narrow range of assessment processes, then writing a report and moving on. Working more collaboratively can reveal much richer information whilst also providing a space for positive intervention.’

Victoria gives an example from recent times. ‘A young person was supposed to have started secondary school but they hadn’t attended for half the term. Obviously, the school didn’t know too much about the pupil, having never attended. But talking with all stakeholders revealed that the Covid experience had caused them to lose confidence, something that an assessment carried out without collaboration wouldn’t have shown. The process needed challenging conversations involving  those working with the child, not just assessment results. Educational Psychology is not just focused on assessing children and young people: it’s much wider than that.’

‘After my degree and PGCE in Leicester, then working as a primary school teacher, I moved to Nottingham and took a Master’s course in 1999, the then necessary qualification to become an educational psychologist. There was a lot of investment in the Local Authority and at one stage I became a senior practitioner for school improvement. This involved working with school leadership teams, some of whom had been deeply wounded by an inspection framework that had placed them in categories three or four of the OFSTED framework of, “requires improvement” or “special measures”.’ 

‘This role in change psychology highlights several ways in which EPs’ work has changed over the last 50 or so years. It requires collaborative working. In order to widen the impact of psychology we’re empowering others to find their own solutions through utilising a psychological evidence base, whilst also learning from them. We sometimes act as coaches or mentors to school teams who wish to engage in collaborative applications of psychology, which helps us to be far more accepted in a wider variety of situations by educational professionals. Together we are able to make a greater difference to the systems in place for children and young people.’

Educational psychology is inherently political

Should EPs and the Society’s Divisions be more involved in lobbying and influencing policy? ‘Yes, and this links in with our commitment to evidence-based practice. At times in the past, educational provision may have been driven by what looked like fads. These have sometimes caught the imagination and support of policy makers. We have a responsibility to question new initiatives and criticise or support them using robust psychological evidence based on research, dissemination and dialogue. If you look at the resources section of the Division’s website you can see that we are already producing important position papers on various areas, which include racial equality to supporting educational return post-Covid.’

Victoria works as an EP for Derbyshire County Council as well as a professional and academic tutor on initial doctoral training courses at The Universities of Sheffield and Nottingham. In a variety of descriptions on the web she stresses the importance of critical psychology. I asked her what this meant to her. ‘It is a huge influence and includes a number of elements. Let me stress one which I think is particularly important for the future of our discipline. Educational psychology is inherently political. Whilst looking to serve the needs of the wider society, it must also address power imbalances and add value to the lives of children who fare less well in the education system. Covid has highlighted issues for many children and young people, which include the manner in which digital poverty has blocked access to educational provision during the pandemic, and compounded difficulties for some communities. Social justice is a key concern and educational psychology should continually look at its practices in light of these aims.’

Victoria’s time combines teaching and practice. ‘A lot is now spent in University work. It is a huge thrill to learn and then apply what you’ve learnt in practice. I’ve worked in seven local authorities and, for a brief while, in France, so I can draw on these experiences. But equally important are the students I tutor; at the moment, 34 new voices since September 2021, who are teaching me as much as I’m teaching them.’

You originally worked as a class teacher and then as a special needs co-ordinator before taking your MSc and then doctorate in educational psychology. Given your teaching experience, do you think that classroom teaching is necessary before training? ‘No. Different people approach educational psychology through different routes. Teaching gave me confidence in how I dealt with people initially as well as a working knowledge of certain school systems. I was able to apply my early readings of psychology to my own classroom. In fact I’d already become fascinated by psychology reading Richard Gross’s classic Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour when studying for my Psychology A-level at Walsall Technical College. This book contributed to a change in my early wish to become a commercial artist into that of educational psychologist and I ended up doing my initial degree in psychology at Leicester, before a PGCE which led me to become a primary school teacher for four years.’ The professional qualification now involves a three-year doctorate with a variety of entry points. ‘Not everyone will have been teachers but each person brings valuable, diverse expertise to the profession.’

Continuing focus

In addition to everything else she’s doing, Victoria is ‘concentrating on my work in the DECP, collaborating with my Co-Chair Dr Olympia Palikara. The whole area of special educational provision is being reviewed and there will be changes in 2022 so that will become a major area of work. We are also going to refine our strategic objectives to ensure that they’re in line with the Society’s, which will include continuing to address important issues such as climate change and mental health. EPs’ role in assessment as well as inclusion is a continuing focus, given the rise in special needs provision over recent years. We will need to clarify and refine our processes creating a clear handbook of how we do things.’

Other educational psychologists I’ve interviewed over the past years have mentioned the role of  private companies offering educational psychology services. ‘This is an important issue for us. EPs promote social justice and local authorities have a role in this. How do private companies do this? Some work with local authorities, some seek to replace them.’

A final question for Victoria was what she does when she isn’t working. There was a brief silence then, ‘well, I have an amazing ten-year-old son, Dylan, who I am immensely proud of. I walk my dogs, see my friends and family. Although I enjoy my work so much, I am grateful to have all of these privileges as they help to ensure I live a fuller life outside of work.’

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