Know how to help

9th September 2005 at 01:00
In the first of a four-part series, Martin Whittaker looks at the role and skills of educational psychologists as they help schools understand difficult pupils

After seven years in the classroom Helen Mason has left teaching - she says she is disillusioned and frustrated by bureaucracy. But rather than losing all her experience as a secondary school teacher, she is building on it by re training as an educational psychologist.

"Teaching became quite unfulfilling," she says. "I felt that a lot of kids were falling through the net and I wasn't making the difference I thought I would. I didn't feel I was using my brain much. With performance management coming in and all the bureaucracy it was a box-ticking exercise."

Mason, who is 33, taught economics, business studies and ICT in inner-city schools in Bristol. She says that, despite her disillusion, she loved working with children - particularly challenging ones.

She was interested in psychology from the start of her teaching career, and was influenced by contact with educational psychologists visiting her school.

"I felt you could never get enough from a psychologist," she says. "As a teacher I thought it would have made our jobs much easier if we had that kind of expertise readily available."

When she qualifies she will find herself in huge demand. There is a shortage of educational psychologists, which some fear will be exacerbated by the introduction of a new three-year training course for graduates to replace the current 12 months. Mason will be among the last taking the traditional training route when she begins her Masters degree in September.

Until now, those entering professional training have had to have qualified teacher status and a minimum of two years full-time qualified teaching experience, as well as an honours degree in psychology or equivalent. From September 2006, graduates will take a three-year PhD, but will no longer be required to be qualified teachers.

According to the profession's union, the Association of Educational Psychologists, there are 3,000 educational psychologists in the UK, most of them working for local education authorities, though some are self-employed and work as consultants. Around 80 per cent of local authorities have at least one vacancy.

Why the shortage? The association says that although plenty of people want to enter the profession there are not enough training places. Most educational psychologists are women, and many leave or go part time because of family commitments. Also, a large number will reach retirement age over the next six years.

Educational psychologists work with children and young people experiencing learning, emotional or behaviour problems. Much of their work in schools aims to help teachers and other staff understand the pupil's difficulties and find better ways of helping them. The psychologist will investigate and make an assessment, observing a child in different settings, interviewing him or her and gathering information from others.

They can provide an individualised programme to help with learning or overcome behaviour problems, as well as advice to others on how to work with the programme. They also give advice to local authorities that helps decide whether a child needs a statement.

Sometimes, educational psychologists work with the whole school, for example training teachers in techniques to help pupils with learning or behaviour difficulties, or contributing to policies on special needs. On a more strategic level they are often called in to join working groups on organisation and policy, perhaps carrying out research used in policy making.

With more joined-up services for children under the Government's Every Child Matters agenda, educational psychologists are increasingly working in multi-disciplinary teams alongside other professionals in schools. They can also become specialists - for example in autism, or in looked-after children.

Pay is a contentious issue within the profession. Most of those working in local authorities are paid on the Soulbury pay scale: from September 1 2005 this means a starting salary for a qualified educational psychologist of Pounds 29,670 (pound;32,741 if you are 35 or over), rising in increments to Pounds 38,865, but with the possibility of further increments up to a maximum of pound;44,895.

This may seem reasonably good, but not when you consider that, until this year, all educational psychologists will have done their time as classroom teachers, as well as their additional training. Their union points out that their pay was once on a par with that of a headteacher, and that the gap has increasingly widened.

The shortage of staff and the need to work more with multi-disciplinary teams have changed the nature of the job, says Brian Harrison-Jennings, the union's general secretary.

"Long gone are the days when psychologists had the luxury of being able to see the child two or three times a week to have one-to-one intensive remedial therapy or teaching," he says. "Increasingly, we have to advise others who are in daily contact with the child."

But, he says, it is still a rewarding job. "It is so satisfying - and academically and intellectually stimulating. It's socially stimulating in the sense that you do get the impression that you are there to be a power for good in order to be able to change people's lives.

"And the work itself is extremely varied. You can be sat playing on the floor with a kid covered in breadcrumbs one minute, and be advising elected members of the council around a boardroom table the next."

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