Smile,please: I'm a trick cyclist

28th October 2005 at 01:00
In the first of a new series on careers that spring from teaching, Emma Burns finds out what it takes to become an educational psychologist

You know that moment when you look into a child's eyes and think: "I really don't have the faintest idea what's going on in there. Is thought moving in the murky depths? Is there nothing there but a primal instinct to txt? Or is there something really wrong that I could help with if I could only work out what it is?" That's the moment when some of us call in an educational psychologist, and others feel a calling to become one.

Of course, life as one of Britain's 2,700 ed psychs is not all about sorting out children who can't or won't learn, or those who can't seem to stop disrupting lessons. There are those who won't attend too, whose parents regularly excuse their absences, saying "I needed to buy him some new shoes" or "She was worried about leaving me on my own at home."

Then there's the rest of the workload:

* Running training sessions for teachers and, even in some fortunate parts of the country where they have enough ed psychs to do it, training for parents.

* Devising plans to help kids who can't seem to crack reading, or sorting out a new timetable for teenagers who are, frankly, better off out of school.

* Everything from helping pick up the pieces after a child has died to tracking developments in educational thinking and carrying out personal research.

"At any one time we are dealing with 3 per cent of the population aged between five and sixteen," says Elaine Redmayne, principal educational psychologist in the East Riding of Yorkshire. "Learning seems to be a bit out of fashion at the moment because everybody's focused on behaviour, but raising achievement for all is the bread and butter work of an educational psychologist."

Sometimes the best thing to do is simply stop the child running riot. Take a seven-year-old boy on Siobhan Mellor's patch in Ashford, Kent.

"Six months ago he was on the verge of exclusion because of his behaviour,"

says.Siobhan. "He is still no angel, but I've helped his teacher and teaching assistant look for patterns. They spotted that the ten minutes after playtime are critical. If he can be taken off to do something else then he will settle and come back into the class and learn. Before, he was wrecking the whole hour for himself and everyone else.

"We're working with his family, too, on coping with his emotional needs so that at school he's more available for learning."

Sometimes the need is to deal with a sudden crisis affecting a whole class or school. "Yesterday I was with a family whose son died last week in an accident," says Siobhan, an ed psych for seven years. "We were talking about how the boy's sister can move on and how the school can support her.

"Several teachers were in tears and wanted to know how to talk to the children. They need to know that it's all right to share their emotions and even cry in front of the class."

Then there are those children who simply don't make the progress they should. They've had whole-class teaching and group work and they're still not getting it. They generally need an assessment to work out exactly what the difficulty is and individually targeted tasks to overcome it. With a bit of luck, they'll start to catch up with their classmates and have the smiles to prove it. Their teacher and teaching assistant will have new expertise in helping children with those particular problems.

The great thing about working as an educational psychologist is that you still feel you're making a difference, but there's more variety and you control your own diary more than if you're at the interactive whiteboard.

The pay ranges frompound;28,821 on the lowest point on the main scale and increases to pound;43,608. Principal educational psychologists are paid up to pound;53,385.

What's the downside? Well, you're not teaching, of course, and you have little direct contact with children. Instead, you work with the adults who look after them and know them best, to find the source of their problems and the solutions.

A few heads still see ed psychs as only good for one thing: handling the paperwork to get statements, which means money. They don't want to draw on their expertise at training staff or rethinking the approach to teaching.

There's quite a lot of mindless paperwork which serves no real function - not that should come as much of a surprise.But probably the worst news of all for teachers who might be interested in swapping careers is that you no longer need to be a teacher to do it. Until now, you needed a psychology degree plus two years in the classroom. From September next year, all you need to apply for one of the 150 training places at 13 universities around the country is a good psychology degree, some sort of contact with children or young people, and to be willing to do another three years of study.

The first year is full-time with some placements, but for Years 2 and 3 you'll need to find a job with a local education authority and be seconded back for study - first two days a week, dropping to one.

For people who are teachers it will mean quite a significant pay cut for at least three years: earnings are unlikely to be much above pound;14,400 a year.

And at the end, you still won't have a qualification that is recognised under the Soulbury report, which specifies national standards and pay scale for educational psychologists, and is agreed by the Association of Educational Psychologists and the National Union of Teachers among others.

Potentially, according to Brian Harrison-Jennings, the general secretary of the association, the trade union that represents 95 per cent of the profession, you could go through all that training only to find yourself blacklisted.

"I don't wish to pre-empt anything our executive committee may decide, but the logic is we will be in dispute with all the local authorities that employ these people in three years' time," he says.

Let's assume it doesn't go that far and the new training, which is backed by the British Psychological Society, does work out. Will any teachers be interested in making the switch?

Probably, if Kairen Cullen is anything to go by. A senior educational psychologist in north London, she trained as a teacher then took her psychology degree, getting up at 4am every day when the youngest of her four children was only two.

"I felt incredibly lucky to have the chance and I found the subject so fascinating that it didn't seem too much of a chore," she says. "I have always had faith that if people's learning experiences were more satisfactory and they fulfilled their personal potential, it would change the world."

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