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Psychologist with designs on learning

Margaret McAllister, an educational psychologist with East Lothian Council, this weekend takes over as president of the British Psychological Society at its annual conference in Brighton. It is equally noteworthy that the new president comes from Scotland and is a woman. Only seven other women have enjoyed the honour since the society was founded 91 years ago. The last Scottish president was elected 13 years ago.

Ms McAllister, Ulster born and educated, was elected by the 24,000 members to head a "learned society", drawing on psychologists from all sectors of the profession. Twice chair of the society's Scottish branch, she says: "It is not a one-person show and it is not like being president of a political party. It is a very democratic organisation." The annual conference is essentially an opportunity to present findings from psychological research. It also offers journalists good copy.

She believes her job is to build on the work of her predecessors and to continue to shed light on "individual and social functioning". There are few better qualified for the task: an experienced psychologist, she worked in the Roman Catholic Lower Falls district in Belfast during the dark days of the early 1970s. In 1977, she moved to Grampian as senior educational psychologist and then to Lothian six years ago. Her communication skills are much in demand from radio where her soft Ulster accent commands attention.

Ms McAllister relishes her links with Edinburgh University, where she is an external assessor for the department of psychology. "It gives me a foot in both camps," she maintains. Of more immediate concern this weekend will be the focus on cuts in university funding and research.

If helping people resolve their difficulties is the core of her job, Ms McAllister carries that principle further. Since early days back home, politics have been an abiding interest. She helped found the New Ulster Movement which led to the formation of the non-aligned Alliance Party. "I was asked to stand for Parliament but I had two small children at the time," she says. There were death threats against the party leadership but these were ignored. Not unnaturally, she monitors the Irish situation closely.

Her roots in middle-ground politics took her toward the Liberal Democrats during her time in Grampian where she squeezed on to the district council in a by-election. From 1985 to 1988, she served in the joint Tory-Lib Dem administration, and was convener of art galleries and museums. An occasional piano player who enjoys folk singing, and whose unfulfilled ambition is to rediscover the joys of school painting, it was a post to which she was well suited.

She remembers particularly the distinguished collection in Aberdeen Art Gallery owned by the district council. Although the BPS absorbs her hours at present, she would be glad to resume a political career at some stage. "I would like to be a member of a Scottish parliament," she confesses.

As a researcher, Ms McAllister has examined social skills training, pre-school children, adolescents, personal and social development in young children and classroom management. A particular favourite is classroom layout.

She observes: "For some individual tasks, children are better sitting in rows but some other tasks are better performed if children sit around tables. Unfortunately, in Britain we have tended to go one way or another. What we need is flexible furniture or lightweight individual tables that children can move to one side."

Like many of her educational psychologist colleagues north and south of the border, Ms McAllister is concerned daily with the assessment of children and the administration of records of need, or statementing in England. It is a contentious matter because psychologists have a critical role in liaising with parents and agencies but no control over the resources that are required. In England, colleagues complain that statementing has produced a legal and adversarial climate, backed by appeals tribunals.

In Scotland, psychologists are now spending a disproportionate amount of time on the administration of records of need. "There is a rising public awareness about help parents can have and that is down to the emphasis on parental rights," Ms McAllister says. "There are more articles in magazines and newspapers about the varying difficulties youngsters have and there is a higher awareness about things parents want their children to take advantage of. "

The Brighton conference is certain to raise such issues in parallel with more cerebral sessions on the likes of Piaget and Vygotsky.

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