Thinking big about educational psychology

14th October 2011 at 01:00
The experts who `oil the wheels of the machine' gathered at their annual conference to debate how they can contribute to the improvement of teaching practice

The running joke about what educational psychologists do is: "they tell you what you already know - but using words you don't understand".

But the quip hides a serious message - one that was addressed directly earlier this month by Susan Deacon, the former Labour health minister who recently published her independent report on early years, Joining the dots: A better start for Scotland's children, for the Scottish Government.

Everyone involved in children's services needs to "talk human" and avoid the jargon that tends to pervade their work, Professor Deacon told the annual conference of educational psychologists - the implication being that this advice applied as much to them as others.

Educational psychologists (EPs), more than many other professionals, understand the nature of the human condition and what really matters to a child, said Professor Deacon.

But "in terms of learning, development and behaviour, there is a big prize there if more of us get better at `talking human'," she stressed.

The conference saw delegates from the Association of Scottish Principal Educational Psychologists (ASPEP) and the Scottish Division of Educational Psychology (SDEP) - trying to define what their national priorities were, and they included a liberal sprinkling of "EP-speak":

- Getting alongside people to understand what is happening and find a way forward.

- Using psychology to identify the best of resources.

- Helping families understand how to negotiate a path through how things work in education.

- Empowering parents and promote the importance of language, play, nurture, love and touch.

But the bottom line was that the work of educational psychologists is as crucial now as ever - although the very nature of their role as intermediaries means that it is often understated.

Bryan Kirkaldy, a former educational psychologist, now a senior education manager at Fife Council and spokesman for the social inclusion network of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland (ADES), describes educational psychology as a relatively young profession, taking its roots from the work on psychometric and IQ testing of Cyril Burt in the first half of the 20th century.

It has evolved significantly in the past couple of decades, he says.

"In the early '90s, educational psychologists would have been doing dyslexia assessment for individual youngsters. But they have helped local authorities to build the capacity of learning support teachers and other teachers to do that assessment themselves. And they have helped them build up strategies to deal with dyslexia, autism, ADHD and a number of other things whose prevalence has markedly increased in the UK."

More recently, educational psychologists have driven improvements in literacy teaching through their evaluation of the impact of more targeted and more precise pedagogical methods.

One of the outcomes of this month's conference is the creation of an educational psychologists' literacy network to support the Government's literacy strategy by using some of the best practice already developed and evaluated in authorities such as North Lanarkshire.

And increasingly, the lessons learned in the literacy field are being applied in numeracy and other aspects of teaching, says Mr Kirkaldy.

The impact of psychological services on developing educational strategy is also becoming more significant, he believes.

"Curriculum for Excellence opens up more clearly what are proven methods - all about the how of learning and about the methodology. It is about getting a good connection and engagement between the learning process and the young person - in other words, what makes learning effective. It opens the door for the application of psychology further and the evaluation and methodology that comes with that," he adds.

Educational psychologists are the ones who "oil the wheels of the machine", says Keith Topping of Dundee University, one of Scotland's leading academics in the field.

That can range from assessment of special needs - a role that has come under growing pressure with the Additional Support for Learning Act - to providing the strategic advice necessary to councils implementing the Scottish Government's GIRFEC (Getting It Right For Every Child) policy. They use SHANARI "well-being indicators" - yet another acronym - to describe the aim that every child should be "Safe, Healthy, Active, Nurtured, Achieving, Respected and Responsible and Included".

Educational psychologists' contribution to Curriculum for Excellence has tended to be seen as confined to health and well-being. But many of them argue that they can make an important contribution to improving teaching practice (see panel, left); they can also translate for teachers what it really means for pupils to be "confident individuals".

As one delegate said: "Schools are feeling swamped with Curriculum for Excellence. We can do simple stuff - I'm not talking about `10 top tips' - but give them the evidence base of what works."

Educational psychologists can use their expertise in how children learn to help teachers interpret Curriculum for Excellence and ask the right questions, they say. They can offer guidance, for instance, on when and how to praise children so that its effect is not counterproductive.

But they are not immune from the budgetary pressures on their council employers. Despite fulfilling a statutory service - unlike most other areas of provision, their role is enshrined in the Education Act 1980 as a core statutory service - vacancies are not being filled and many educational psychologists have a growing caseload, thanks in part to the entitlements created under the ASL Act, says Drew Morrice, assistant secretary of the EIS union.

Bryan Kirkaldy points out that although educational psychologists' duties are enshrined in statute, their caseload ratios are not - which means they have less protection in terms of workload than teachers whose class size maxima are protected.

"Often, educational psychologists are not seen politically as frontline in the way that teachers are, although they would wish that they are," he says.

"Their direct work with clients tends to be with the most marginalised and vulnerable sections of the population - so that is not a highly visible role. They also work closely with a whole network of partner agencies - again, a fairly hidden role. And their work on strategy and policy is not particularly visible either - it tends to be more embedded in the local authority process," he adds.

With a growing impetus for councils to merge first of all their management structures and then the services they deliver, many expect educational psychological services to become a shared service between neighbouring authorities. And that, warns Professor Topping, could be the precursor of a national service, delivered locally.

He argues that talk of a national service has fallen foul of principal educational psychologists' vested interests and territoriality but tempers his comments with the warning that, like aspirations for a national police service, a national educational psychology service should not be simply a guise for rationalisation, but a focus for a co-ordinated service with a united purpose.

Mr Kirkaldy's view is that there is too much diversity both across educational psychology services and within them.

He is also concerned that training numbers have been cut - an issue currently the subject of talks with the Scottish Government.

In alternate years, Dundee and Strathclyde universities each currently produce 24 educational psychology graduates - until recently it was 27 per year.

"You can't train educational psychologists over-night," he warns.

Job prospects tend to be good, although it is no longer the case that educational psychologists entering the market can choose where they will work and they are no longer guaranteed a permanent job at the end of their training.

The EIS union is the negotiator for most of them, and Drew Morrice is concerned that budgetary pressures are having an impact on the availability of support for trainee educational psychologists.

Mr Morrice points to a turf war between the Scottish Division of Educational Psychology and the British Psychological Society over who should take responsibility for continuing professional development arrangements.

He says the other representative body, the Association of Scottish Principal Educational Psychologists, is concerned that failure to fill vacancies is affecting the service's capacity.

The most recent HMIE evaluation of educational psychology, published earlier this year, found a number of strengths in the service - not only in its work with families but in terms of its contribution to national priorities. But a third of schools and centres reported that they did not feel the service had helped them achieve aspects of their strategic development plan or contributed to the CPD of staff.

"More requires to be done to enable children and young people across Scotland to have access to the highest quality of educational psychology services, albeit adapted to local needs.

"In the current challenging context, services will certainly need to be efficient, responsive and flexible," concluded Bill Maxwell, then senior chief inspector of HMIE (now interim chief executive of Educational Scotland) - and an educational psychologist to trade.

Minds on mediated learning

The principles of mediated learning - based on the concept that learners develop their cognitive structures to become better learners - are likely to form the basis of Aberdeenshire's strategic learning and teaching policy.

At Alford Primary in Aberdeenshire, one of a number of schools to embed the methodology, all 16 members of the teaching staff have been trained over the past five years in mediated learning by the authority's psychological services team.

It is a methodology based in the work of Reuven Feuerstein, an Israeli clinical, developmental, cognitive psychologist, renowned for his theory of intelligence, which states "it is not `fixed', but rather modifiable".

Alford Primary head Liz MacLeod says it has "heightened our awareness as teachers of the complexity of learning - how even the simplest tasks are much more complex steps than they appear".

She adds: "I can't sing the educational psychologists' praises highly enough."

Teachers are now more aware of what's being asked of pupils and have a better awareness of "learning how to learn" and how to teach this.

She uses the analogy of tracks through the snow - first, the light tracks of a bird hopping across the snow, then other animals walking in the same tracks so that the imprint becomes deeper each time - as an illustration of the need to revisit learning on a regular basis.

The immediate benefit to pupils is, she says, that they are now more aware that intellect is not fixed - an idea also underpinned by the research of Stanford University professor of psychology Carol Dweck.

They are better at seeing that if they didn't solve a problem it was because they didn't cover all the information at the start of the process, and didn't make a proper plan, says Mrs MacLeod. "If they can understand what's getting in the way of their learning, they can turn things around," she says.

Teachers now try not to make as many assumptions about children's learning and keep check of their understanding.

Another important feature of mediated learning is teaching children how to make connections with what they are learning there and then and with other activities in the outer world. If they are doing a plan or list in English language, teachers will ask children to think of other circumstances where they have to do the same thing.

Anne Wilson, one of Aberdeenshire's educational psychologists and a former teacher, says: "If we can change the way people learn, that will continue to benefit them for the rest of their lives."

The key: using security and consistency to help them learn and relate to others

East Ayrshire psychological services have taken the concept of nurture classes for children in early primary to a new level.

From a pilot in New Cumnock Primary, the nurture class principles are now being implemented in the authority's supported learning centres for secondary-age pupils at one end of the spectrum to children aged 0-3 at the other. Staff working in the council's three children's homes with looked-after children are also being trained in nurture principles.

The focus is now on sharing this good practice at a multi-agency level - from NHS to social work colleagues - so that everyone is using the same language and understanding. Training is delivered by psychological services.

The idea of making East Ayrshire a nurturing community all began, says Ruth Miller, one of the authority's educational psychologists, with M - a child with a particularly difficult family history who was having problems at school and with her foster placement.

Fourteen-year-old M had originally been accessing education for less than an hour a day; she is now in full-time education, albeit in a supported learning centre.

"She's learning again. She feels she belongs to the school and has a sense of community," said Mrs Miller.

In the supported learning centre, for young people with moderate learning difficulties, the same practice is followed as in P1-3 nurture classes - fostering good relationships; sharing; socialisation; giving targets; and rewarding good behaviour.

She defines nurture as "the time and space to have a high-quality relationship with a child, using security and consistency to help them learn and relate to other people".

One of the key principles is that children are supported at their appropriate developmental level, rather than their chronological age.

Results include:

- Children in the four pilot nurture primary classes made as much progress in literacy as their matched mainstream peers.

- In two of the four pilot schools, children in P1 achieved Level A in literacy for the first time - headteachers attributed this to the impact of the nurture class.

- Nurture children not only increased their vocabulary but also improved the quality of their oral language.

- The children increased their pro-social skills and decreased their challenging behaviours.

- On another measure they showed evidence of a reduced likelihood of meeting diagnostic criteria for a mental health diagnosis.

- None of the target children were excluded from school while being supported in a nurture class.

- None of the children required to be assessed for referral to specialist or "outwith authority" resources.

- Parental involvement in the children's education increased.

In the supported learning centre:

- Children made statistically significant gains in their social and emotional development and in their ability to meet their individual education plan targets - 69 per cent before Christmas compared with 83 per cent after Christmas.

- There were fewer staff absences and staff felt more of a personal responsibility for their pupils' care and well-being.

- Parents no longer assume they will be hearing "bad news" when contacted by the school.

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