Psychologists bid to raise their profile

4th October 1996 at 01:00
Neil Munro reports on the mood at the first national conference of the ASPEP. Educational psychologists put their pessimism about the effects of council reform behind them last week, giving notice that they expect to have more influence in local and national corridors of power.

More than half of Scotland's 288 psychologists turned up for their first national conference, led by the Association of Scottish Principal Educational Psychologists. Delegates felt it was "good to talk," now that the disappearance of the regional monoliths has left them more fragmented and isolated.

"We are no longer small fish in an inordinately large Strathclyde pond, " Tom Williams, principal educational psychologist in East Ayrshire, observes. "We are still small fish but in a much smaller pond, one consequence of which is that our profile vis-a-vis the directorate is much higher."

The association is nonetheless reassured at the decisions by 28 of the 29 new mainland councils to set up unified educational psychology services (Clackmannan is linked with Stirling). The "rogue" in the pack is Perthshire and Kinross, which has created three area multidisciplinary teams bringing together psychologists, educational social workers and community education staff. The principal psychologist has immediate jurisdiction over only one of those teams.

The association is concerned about an approach which the council defends as an attempt to break down professional barriers in the interests of young people. Psychologists fear, however, that induction for new staff and professional development could suffer if they are dispersed in this way.

But Perthshire did not dominate the proceedings. Bryan Kirkaldy, principal psychologist in Fife, said education authorities needed psychological expertise more than ever as increasing numbers of clients were being educated locally and in mainstream classes, a process driven as much by educational and social imperatives as by the need to cut down on costly residential placements.

Psychologists have a good "research base" grounded in systematic casework, Mr Kirkaldy commented. They were an unrivalled source of information and advice to policy-makers on gaps and trends in special needs.

Mr Kirkaldy, who chairs the association, moved to define a role for psychologists acting as consultants not separate experts. They could not hope to influence school or education authority practices if they saw themselves as the "lone ranger" offering expert prescription in isolation from the everyday activities of the child.

Psychologists' credibility is enhanced by working alongside teachers and parents, Mr Kirkaldy added. Teachers' gibe that "psychologists are people who tell us what we already know in language we cannot understand" would be a welcome casualty of that process.

"Whatever we put on the menu, schools will want," Mr Kirkaldy said as he urged his colleagues to gain control of the service they deliver through "practice agreements" with schools.

There are an estimated 250 teachers to every psychologist, another reason delegates were keen that headteachers, class teachers and learning support staff should become front-line collaborators in assessing and treating pupils.

"It is a more economic use of our time," Bill O'Hara, depute principal psychologist in Aberdeenshire, said in one of the workshops.

Collaborative working is being forced on psychologists by a mixture of economic constraints and demands for more immediate accountability, according to Tom Williams in East Ayrshire. The council has eight psychologists compared with more than 20 in the former Ayrshire division of Strathclyde, which has led to problems for specialist services such as visual impairment.

The next step for the association is to turn psychologists' new fragmented working environment to positive advantage by establishing national quality standards for the service, and a working party has been set up.

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