Currie brings us out of the shadowlands

The role of educational psychology is finally gaining the recognition it deserves, says Tommy MacKay

ducational psychology is on a rising tide. For the past half-century or so it has occupied an important but marginal place within Scottish education. Now the Currie report, whose recommendations were accepted by the Scottish Executive this month, has placed it at the heart of the educational agenda.

Indeed, psychology itself is burgeoning. In many universities undergraduate courses are bursting at the seams. In 1970, membership of the British Psychological Society was under 5,000, but it is now almost 35,000.

The recruitment crisis in educational psychology is in itself a testimony to such success. With local government reorganisation in 1996 and with no minimum staffing standards, educational psychologists were worried that they might be among the first to be hit by new councils seeking economies. Instead, the reverse has happened. More than 50 new posts have been created - about twice the number of current vacancies.

The focus of educational psychology is how people learn and develop, which means a much wider role for psychologists than a narrow interest in special educational needs.

There are two reasons why educational psychology has until now operated largely at the margins. The first is economic. Public welfare services grew throughout the last century from modest origins. The employment of a handful of psychologists within education and health services from about the 1930s onwards was an innovation. Clinical and health psychologists later saw their potential role in promoting mental and physical health and quality of life, while a key role was seen for educational psychologists in fostering learning and raising achievement.

The second reason is philosophical. Traditionally, children with special educational needs were labelled and placed in special schools. A central role of the psychologist was to identify this population, to apply the appropriate label and to arrange the placement.

However, educational psychology itself played a leading role in promoting more inclusive approaches to children with additional support needs, and to fostering their learning within both the special sector and, increasingly, the mainstream.

Now social inclusion is central to the Government's agenda and the skills of the educational psychologist have become crucial, not just in supporting the inclusion of those with additional support needs but also in developing psychology's contribution to learning in general.

This context is the main thrust of the Currie Report. The review of educational psychology services arose in the first instance from straightforward supply and demand. There were too few psychologists to fill vacant posts. However, the remit from the Scottish Executive looked beyond recruitment to the nature of services.

The focus of the report in looking to the future is on the national priorities for education in Scotland. These are almost a gift to the profession of educational psychology - raising standards, especially in the core skills of literacy and numeracy; supporting and developing the skills of teachers and the self-discipline of pupils, and making school environments more conducive to learning and teaching; promoting equality, with particular regard to pupils with disabilities and special needs; working with parents to teach pupils respect for self and one another; equipping pupils with the foundation skills, attitudes and expectations necessary to prosper in a changing society, and encouraging creativity.

This is the very stuff of educational psychology. It is the heartland of the psychologist's training, skills and interests.

The groundwork for this crucial role has already been prepared. Increasingly, psychologists have been key players in early intervention projects and other initiatives aimed at raising achievement. They have also contributed to research and practice in areas such as school ethos, learning styles and pupil expectations, along with their work on inclusion. The fact that they work at the level of the individual child or family as well as school and authority level places them in a strategic position for fostering children's learning and development.

The Currie report concludes that educational psychology is "an integral and vital element in the local authority structure". The future of the profession will be determined by how it responds to this challenge.

Tommy MacKay, a chartered educational psychologist, is director of Psychology Consultancy Services and was consultant to the Currie review.

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