Young Scottish minds need you

31st March 2000 at 01:00
Educational psychologists are becoming a threatened species. As the job entails more and more responsibility, they become increasingly difficult to recruit, especially in rural areas. But one authority, Dumfries and Galloway, has come up with its own creative - and controversial - solution, as Julie Morrice discovered

Think of buzzwords on the current Scottish educational scene: early intervention, alternatives to exclusion, special needs, excellence fund. All have changed the educational psychologist's job.

Twenty years ago, educational psychology was a service for the few. Now, with increasing awareness of special needs and equal opportunities, it has moved to the heart of the matter. Educational psychologists are increasingly involved with council policy-making, with schools at an organisational level, and with in-service training of teachers. The profession has become central to the provision of education.

This "massive progressive increase in the workload of psychological services" (to quote a 1997 national report on the staffing and training of educational psychologists), has brought problems:there are simply not enough to go around.

"There is a critical problem," says Dr Ian Liddle, chair of the Association of Scottish Principal Educational Psychologists (ASPEP). He is hopeful of assistance from the Scottish Executive with whom discussions are underway, but history suggests that a fairly major initiative is required. Less than three years ago the then education minister Brian Wilson stepped in to increase the grants given to trainee educational psychologists and to increase the numbers admitted to the two available university courses, but, given the expansion in the profession, it has not been enough to redress the balance.

"There are about 20 vacancies spread about the country," says Liddle, "but, as with teachers, there is a major generation problem facing us in the near future. Fifty per cent of current educational psychologists will retire in the next 15 years." There are some 340 educational psychologists in Scotland, so serious trouble looms.

The blindingly obvious solution is to train more educational psychologists, but that, says Liddle, is easier said than done. In the past there were one-year educational psychology courses at Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Stirling universities. None of those have survived the round of cuts and changes that have buffeted higher education for a generation. There are now only two two-year courses, at Dundee and Strathclyde, with intakes on alternate years of 18 trainees at Dundee and 16 at Strathclyde. "These are very successful, intensive training courses with mentoring of trainees, and professional placements. You can't have dozens and dozens of trainees on a course like that," says Liddle. Equally he feels it would be difficult to have a yearly intake at either university, and that trying to persuade another university to set up a course might be tricky. "The departments find that running these courses is not an earner, and it could take up to five years to get another course running," he says.

Liddle is still hopeful that a "creative" solution will be found in discussion with the Scottish Executive, but in the short-term some areas, particularly those outwith the central belt, are struggling.

One local authority which is feeling the pinch is Dumfries and Galloway. In the past six months the authority has advertised for two educational psychologists and for an area principal educational pychologist. National advertisements have failed to stimulate any interest from outside Dumfries and Galloway. The resulting shortfall, says Stuart Beck, head of psychology and learning support, means "we see one third less of the clients we would expect. The schools are being very supportive and very selective in the referrals they make to us, but we can't continue like this."

The authority's inventive solution to the problem is what Beck jokingly calls "the Alex Ferguson approach to staff recruitment difficulties: developing talent from within the squad". A circular was put into Dumfries and Galloway schools, offering secondment into the psychology service. Applicants had to hold an honours degree in psychology. They would be seconded to one of the three area services within Dumfries and Galloway for the spring and summer terms of 2000, and would apply to one of the universities offering a course in educational psychology. The authority received nine responses from teachers with psychology degrees, and selected three. The three "trainee psychologists" began their secondment on January 6 (see below).

"There is a danger that the Dumfries and Galloway scheme will be seen as a model for addressing the national shortfall," says Ian Liddle. "I don't think that is appropriate. Educational psychologists carry out very sensitive and complex duties on behalf of education authorities. While I acknowledge the shortfall, there is a danger that unqualified staff will take on responsibility and be counted amongst the establishment. It is likely to lead to a reduced quality of service and even to a danger of litigation for the council."

Stuart Beck is sympathetic to Liddle's concerns, but stresses the need for his council to find some way out of an untenable situation. "It is not a position we moved to lightly. This is an education committee-approved initiative." He underlines that "trainees" will have little, if any, responsibility during their six-month attachment. "If schools have concerns about certain problems, they might contact the trainee who would relay it to the supervising psychologist.

"Essentially what we are doing is grooming, and if we can facilitate their entry into a training course - even if we only achieve a raising of awareness in three staff who go straight back to their teaching jobs - that has been worth doing."

Certainly there is no guarantee that the "trainees" will get on to a course. This year there were more than 100 applicants for the 18 places at Dundee, and the university is in the process of interviewing 42 of them. However, Dumfries and Galloway is considering the purchase of training places for educational psychologists at Newcastle University which runs a one-year course; their probationary period would be extended from one to two years. Two of the council's exisiting staff were trained at Newcastle, and they have no worries about the level of training on offer.

Ian Liddle of ASPEP is not so sanguine. "A one-year training course we deem not adequate training for educational psychologists." Liddle is very positive about the future of educational psychology in Scotland. He talks with enthusiasm about the much more varied range of duties and the increasing consultative role; but sees a need to ensure that the degree of professionalism of educational psychologists matches those challenges. He is pleased trainees are drawn from all backgrounds. But can Scotland produce quantity in educational psychologists as well as quality?

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