Expert in call for national educational psychologist service

21st January 2011 at 00:00
Practitioners should be involved in school-based issues such as literacy and numeracy, not just special needs, he says

One of Scotland's leading researchers has suggested that a national service for educational psychologists should be created, taking their function away from local government.

Keith Topping, professor of educational and social research at Dundee University, told the British Psychological Society's annual conference in Gateshead last week that educational psychologists had "over-invested" in special needs and should consider restructuring and focusing more on school-based issues such as literacy and numeracy strategies and classroom behaviour management.

"How many educational psychologists are involved at a practical level in Curriculum for Excellence?" he said to The TESS.

With local authority budget cuts looming, a reduction in the number of training places for educational psychologists funded by the Scottish Government (from 27 to 24 in both Dundee and Strathclyde universities), and the prospect of large numbers of psychologists retiring in the next few years, it was time to consider a move to a national psychologists' service, he suggested.

A national service would offer a "much more powerful way" of organising the staff involved, said Professor Topping - particularly in Scotland's "ridiculous situation" of tiny authorities which were now preparing to share education resources in any case.

Professor Topping, a chartered educational and child psychologist, cited examples of research studies where educational psychologists had not been involved from the outset and might, he argued, have benefited had they been so.

Managers of a programme for seriously disruptive adolescents in New York had placed evidence from educational psychology research at sixth or seventh in their list of priorities for deciding how to intervene with these youngsters - suggesting that not enough attention was being given to psychologists' professional advice.

On the basis of his evaluation of the Fife Peer Learning Project, which was piloted in primary schools for reading and maths, there was no significant difference in practice in Scotland. Psychological services had been involved in the Fife programme as occasional observers only.

The acclaimed literacy programmes in West Dunbartonshire and North Lanarkshire would, he suggested, have been more effective if there had been an even greater involvement of educational psychologists in their design and execution, he argued.

Educational psychologists had "lost their way" in the UK, albeit more so in England than in Scotland, Professor Topping said.

"In England, the whole profession has been driven by the national curriculum, Ofsted and league tables. Educational psychologists have gone into a bit of a huddle and become over-focused on special needs education," he said.

This was attributable to Government pressure along with a self-elected choice by educational psychologists, who lacked the confidence to follow other routes.

The situation in Scotland was more optimistic, thanks to the nation's more flexible curriculum guidance (which had become even more flexible under Curriculum for Excellence) and its "more civilised" inspectorate, particularly since former educational psychologist Bill Maxwell had taken over as its head. But educational psychologists in Scotland had been too narrow in their interpretation of guidance too, he believed.

"None of this bodes very well for the future," warned Professor Topping. In England, Education Secretary Michael Gove might well decide to implement reforms to special needs education.

"All those educational psychologists cling to it (special needs) as a form of work and may find it taken away and themselves facing redundancy in the future," he said.

The service needed to think about developing new specialisms, notably literacy, numeracy, behaviour and thinking skills and creativity, he added.

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